Alabama National Fair

A lot of prose has been devoted over the years to talking about the annual county fair as some great symbol of autumn, waxing poetic about the waxing harvest moon, and considerable carrying on about agricultural festivals, celebrating the start of the march into winter. While all of that is great in its own cliched way, the main reason to go to the state fair is not out of some kind of harvest-related tribal ritual. The main reason to go is because it’s a lot of fun.

The Alabama National Fair opens here in town Oct. 5 and runs through Oct. 14. There are some musical acts that, if not exactly “big name,” you have likely heard of. While we have nothing against nostalgia, we are not going to the fair for the once-popular stylings of Lee Greenwood, Kansas or Keith Sweat. No, we are going because there are rides, dangerously unhealthy foods, and a series of competitions in which (for example) someone will be crowned “Baker of the Year.”

Our tastes are diverse. We enjoy carnival games, but also will be sure to examine the exhibit offering “Animals That Built America” (sponsored by Tucker Pecan). It’s not every day you get to get up close to draft horses, oxen, buffalo, and donkeys. And it’s not every day that you can eat an actual funnel cake heaped in the kind of powdered sugar that mists into your lungs. There are racing pigs.

We’re not sure on which day we’ll go (or if we’ll go more than once), whether we’ll buy a wristband for the rides, or whether we’ll try to catch a rare non-seasonal glimpse of Santa Claus (from 2 until 6 p.m. on Sunday, October 14). But one thing is certain: We are going to the fair this year.

In our fair warm-up, MML was fortunate to talk with Rep. Joe Hubbard, a local lawyer who represents Montgomery in the Alabama House of Representatives. Hubbard is a member of the Kiwanis Club of Montgomery, which sponsors the Alabama National Fair. He also has been among the region’s greatest defenders of Garrett Coliseum, which is the gigantic domed building out at the fairgrounds.

MML: Thanks for talking to us today. How’d you end up in the group of folks that put on the Alabama National Fair?

Rep. Hubbard: My grandfather was actually on the very first fair board back in 1954. Back then, the Kiwanis club of Montgomery decided to hold as its main fundraiser for charity a fair. A number of various clubs have fairs, but when it was established the Montgomery fair was one of the largest in the country and it actually still is. The club decided to attract agricultural interests and livestock from around the Southeast. So, my grandfather, Charles Hubbard, was on the first fair board and I believe is the last living member of that inaugural board. Ever since then, the fair has been a big tradition for our whole city and county and people come from around the state. It changed its name in the 1990s to the Alabama National Fair, because we were getting participants from around the nation to show livestock and horse riding and things like that.

The members of the fair board are constantly improving the fair. They go to conventions around the county and we’re part of a larger network of fairs. It really has grown and become a centerpiece for Montgomery, for agriculture and livestock, and really for all kids kids growing up in Montgomery.

MML: What do you like about it?

Rep. Hubbard: I think I have been going for about 31 years. I take my own son and daughter and of course we eat the sausage, the funnel cake, the lemonade. It’s really a family tradition. And I always like to remember what it has meant to this community. Because of the fair, over $350,000 was given to local charities last year. That’s money that all stays in the River Region.

MML: When people think of the fair and the fairgrounds, one of the first things they think of is the Coliseum.

Rep. Hubbard: I grew up appreciating the history of Garrett Coliseum. It was finished in 1951 and is really architecturally and historically unique. It was the graduation project of Betty Robinson, who was from Montgomery and graduated from Princeton Architecture School in 1950. She came back to Alabama and joined up with Sherlock, Smith and Adams. There was an ongoing effort to locate a state agriculture center, and there was also some discussion about putting an arena on the property. The firm’s proposal was her senior project, “a turtle-backed model,” which was at the time the largest covered arena in the world. The design was really architecturally unique – to my knowledge, there is no other building like it in the country, and maybe not in the world.

The first event held there was a concert for Hank Williams. The Coliseum was packed and they hadn’t even finished getting all seats in there and people were standing where the seats were going to be put. The paint on the top rafters was still drying because they were putting on paint just before the concert started. Since then, it has hosted Elvis, Aretha Franklin, and many other notable musicians.

Folks don’t realize the economic impact still annually provided. Just from the fair, it is as much as a hundred thousand dollars over ten days. From that, we support charities, but having events is also about our identity, and residents get involved and are participating. So in those ways, the identity of the fair has merged with the Coliseum.

MML: Tell us a little bit about the struggle to keep the Coliseum going. I know we don’t want to take such a cool facility for granted.

Rep. Hubbard: In 2011, as we all know, state budgets were shrinking. At one point, the Coliseum got $400,000 from the state’s General Fund to stay open. It had a staff and the usual expenses. Now, remember, this is a state-owned facility on state property. And the budget had been zeroed out in 2011, which was my first year in the legislature. Given my history, I was frustrated. I’m a third generation member of the Kiwanis, and as a member of the fair board and the Kiwanis Club, I was frustrated to see that the Coliseum was scheduled to close. So I drafted some legislation creating the Garrett Coliseum Redevelopment Corporation, which is a partnership between the state, the county, the city, and the Kiwanis Club. Our Agriculture Commissioner, John McMillan, is the chair. And we transferred the deed from the state to the corporation, taking a big liability off of the state’s books. So now, the corporation can contract with the Kiwanis Club’s fair board.

Since that time, if you’ve been to the Coliseum, you’ll see fresh paint. The bathrooms are clean. The parking lot has been re-paved. You’ll see walking through it, a building that has received much-needed maintenance and upkeep. The money has gone into the public-private partnership, which means the state’s expenses are cut in half, but work has more than doubled.

MML: That’s smart use of public investments. What’s next?

Rep. Hubbard: Really, the Coliseum is just entering its next generation. We’re looking at a possible bond issue of $10-12 million and there are going to be some necessary upgrades to host new kinds of events. self-sufficient in the long run. It was costing tax payers $400,000 per year and was always in the red. Now it costs less than half that, ending the year in the black, while getting renovations and upgrades. So the Coliseum has a very bright future.

MML: Was the whole delegation able to work together to get the legislation passed?

Rep. Hubbard: You know, you’re really not supposed to do too much as a freshman legislator, but I worked with Sen. Brewbaker and I think we put something together that shows that we know we have a really special crown jewel for the whole region. We brought the delegation together, and the city and the county and the Agriculture Commissioner, and got all the stakeholders to the table. We recognized that if we didn’t do something, it could go dark.

People talk all the time about the value of public-private partnerships. Biscuits Stadium is one example of a successful partnership between city, county and private entities, but Garrett Coliseum one is the only one ones that the state has really seen. It was really the first one in the state.

MML: Can something be done to ensure the long-term future of the Coliseum? What about ensuring that it gets a designation so that something so historic can never be torn down?

Rep. Hubbard: I think the redevelopment corporation might want to look at historical designation. I know that we see energy efficiency funds out there and maybe we can get some grants from the federal government. It really will take all angles to move this forward more. But we are working together and all see the tremendous potential there.

It really is one of the great venues in Montgomery. We’ve got the new renovations at Cramton Bowl and the Montgomery Performing Arts Center, but I don’t think you’re going to see an act like The Avett Brothers at MPAC. We really could get more rock and roll shows at the Coliseum. For example, they had been working hard to get Elton John, but to get an act that big in that venue, and we have had tremendous talent there, they are going to want to upgrade the electrical system and repair the transformer. It’s in a huge room, and it’s the size of a small bus. It dates to late 1940s, so it’s the original transformer. But clearly, we are on a natural route for touring acts from New Orleans on the way to Atlanta, and if we want to, we can see that again. Even if sporting events are at Cramton, Garrett could be home to roller derby, Disney on Ice, rodeo, maybe some basketball events.

Really, we just have to figure out at the government level how to leverage our facilities, because overall, this is something that really helps Montgomery in the long term.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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