Grants fuel fair improvements
Planned upgrades will turn the Northeast Florida Fairgrounds into a year-round facility.
Northeast Florida Fair Association President Keith Wingate said the goal is to move some of the activities northward on the property, adding a new covered arena and three new livestock barns. A new exhibition hall is also planned in the long term.
“We truly have a vision for the future,” Wingate said. “With the growth of our county, especially on the East Side, we have to grow with it. And there’s no reason that we can’t develop the fairgrounds into a facility that can be used year-round – not just during the fair.”
Since 1947, the fair has served as a mainstay in Callahan, attracting more than 40,000 people in 2018.
The fairgrounds also serve as a staging area for various personnel in times of emergencies. The Relay for Life of West Nassau County and other events are also held onsite. Additional events will arrive in the coming months.
“We want to be a stand-alone facility that generates enough income so that we can do projects,” Wingate said. “Right now, with the buildings having been built in the 70s, they’re in disrepair; they need to be replaced. It takes so much money to do that. Even though our association operates in the black, we don’t owe money. We don’t borrow money. It would take years and years for us to amass the amount of money that we need to do this construction.”
A new paved parking lot will be added at the rear of the property, making it the main parking lot and entrance, with 30 percent more spaces.
This should help alleviate traffic congestion along U.S. 1. The current parking lot will stay the same for now, with plans to elevate the area so that it won’t be prone to flooding when buildings are relocated nearby, according to Wingate.
Since 2017, the fair association has received about $1.8 million in capital funds from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to pay for the improvements. The board received $990,000 in grant funding this year.
Vendor booths were refaced with a western facade design similar to the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office building onsite. Also, the midway will be expanded and fair activities increase. The plan is to complete the construction in stages, which increases the likelihood of receiving funds in smaller amounts instead of getting a large, one-time allocation. Capital Funding Resource Coordinator Paulette Kirkland is responsible for submitting grant applications to the FDACS.
Wingate appreciates the legislative support received from State Sen. Aaron Bean, Rep. Cord Byrd and the Board of Nassau County Commissioners.
Fair board members have made trips to Tallahassee to remind legislators that the fairgrounds are an integral part of the county.
“Aaron Bean and Cord Byrd have been very instrumental in helping us obtain funding,” Wingate said.
He added that the fair is second in attendance countywide to the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival. Community and school groups rely on revenues from the sales of food and beverages during the fair for annual support.
Fair organizers would like to see the Northeast Florida Fair ascend to the level of the Clay County Fair.
“We want to be like Clay County,” Wingate said. “It is a first-class fairground and it is used year-round for concerts and bull riding and other activities. The difference between us – and Clay County – Clay County’s fair is owned by the county. They have county employees that run the fair. We are all volunteer. So we’re an association that’s non-profit. We’ve got 13 sitting board members and all of them work really hard.”
To highlight the parking lot project, this year’s fair opens Oct. 10, with the theme, “Paving Our Way to the Future.”
Wingate said he predicts increased fair attendance as the population continues to grow on the East Side.
“If you come from Wild-light’s main entrance and come the back way – Griffin Road and Musselwhite (Road) – it’s only 12 miles to the fairgrounds, so that’s hard to comprehend that eventually, half the population of the county is going to be 12 miles from this facility,” he said.