Fairground manager calls it quits after nearly two decades

Friday, September 30, 2011 | 2:57 p.m. CDT; updated 8:48 p.m. CDT, Saturday, October 1, 2011
George Harris, general manager of the Boone County Fairgrounds for nearly 20 years, puffs on his pipe between chores on Saturday during his last weekend event. Harris' resignation takes effect on Oct. 1, his 79th birthday. "I buy my own tobacco five pounds at a time so I don't run out," Harris said. "Maybe now I can grow my own."

COLUMBIA — There's a lot of stuff in George Harris' office. Some of it will leave with him when he retires on Saturday, and some of it will become the new manager's problem.

Harris will have to hand over the cabinet full of individual, differently colored files on groups that have used and continue to use the Boone County Fairgrounds as a venue for their events. But the smoking pipes scattered throughout the room and the five-pound bag of tobacco are his.

"(The pipes are) kind of a trademark of his," his wife, Willie Harris, said. "I put up with it — as long as he keeps them clean."

Harris has managed the Boone County Fairgrounds since 1992. He works 12 hours a day, seven days a week. His retirement coincides with his 79th birthday.

"It feels good" to be retiring, he said. "It's time."

A new management company, TAG Events LLC, will temporarily take over the fairground upon Harris' retirement. At the same time, the Boone County Commission will replace the Boone County Fair Board as operator of the property.

Harris is leaving the fairgrounds at a time of uncertainty stemming from its consistent loss of money, lack of sound accounting and increasing maintenance challenges. Since Boone County bought the fairgrounds in 1999, it has struggled to make significant progress on a master plan for developing it as recreation area and to create a money-making event center.

Suggestions for its future include selling the fairgrounds to implementing a five-year, multimillion dollar plan to improve and market them. But no definite plan will be put in place until the commission can get familiar with the property.

No matter what the commission does, the fairgrounds won't be the same without Harris, who said he has practically lived there for the past 20 years.

Born and raised in Cairo, Mo., Harris has owned several banks, a Western supply store and an animal supply store in Huntsville. He sold all of them in turn and wasn't working when his daughter suggested he meet with officials at the Midway Expo Center west of Columbia.

After working at Midway for five years, he became general manager of the Boone County Fairgrounds. His duties, he said, include keeping vendors and event officials happy and making sure that everything stays in working condition. Even tasks as specific as checking that the garbage cans remain empty are part of his job description.

But Harris doesn't work only on the small issues. He is also in charge of getting groups to hold their events at the fairgrounds, which entails soliciting events and bidding on them, often against cities elsewhere in Missouri and in other states.

Harris is in charge of deciding how much to bid for an event. Before making decisions, he looks at the groups' budgets and needs.

"I don't like to try to get an event I know I can't handle," he said.

Many of the events — like the RK Gun Show and the Good Sam RV Club Rally — have come back annually for 17 or 18 years, and Harris has developed relationships with the people who run them.

"I like for events to return year after year," he said. "It's like a family reunion every week."

Forging relationships

As he walked through the RK Gun Show on Saturday, vendors and customers greeted Harris with pats on the back and chatted with him over tables laden with handguns, rifles and knives of all sizes, shapes and designs. They talked about business, his retirement and the building's fly problem.

"They're just looking for a warm place," he told a group of men selling guns.

"Hell is a nice warm place for them," someone yelled back.

Harris stopped to gossip at the table where people were cleaning glasses for free. They said the gun show was their last event. Cleaning glasses has just become too stressful. Harris got his cleaned while chatting about  business and life, then he lowered his voice as the conversation turned toward someone's health problems.

“Thank you, my dear,” he said after taking his glasses back. “Oh! I can see now!”

This rapport with the gun show vendors is not unique. Boone County Fair Board President Harold Cunningham has known Harris for more than 20 years and witnessed his popularity for just as long.

"I think the world of George," Cunningham said. "He's a good people person. He's more than just an associate. He's a friend."

Back in his office, Harris apologized for the mess, an accumulation of 20 years of work.

There are two wooden desks in the office and a large rectangular folding table. Each of them is covered in things — salt and pepper shakers, papers, pipes, ashtrays, empty chip bags.

The office is large enough to also hold a large, shiny black safe, a mini-fridge, a display cabinet — in which a bottle of Jones soda and a rifle-wielding deer figurine find a home — cabinets and enough chairs to host a large conference. A brown leather saddle sits to one side of the room, perched upright and ready to ride, if not for the missing horse.

Physically, Harris is not a large man, but if office space is an indicator of a large presence, he certainly has that.

Buster Caudle met Harris when he began managing the fairgrounds. He owns the Cottonwoods RV Park that borders the property. He also works long days and is the same age as Harris. He has a simple explanation for their prolonged stamina.

"I guess it's called dedication and enjoying what you do," he said.

Despite his close relationships with people who work around the fairgrounds, Harris prefers to live in the country and comes to town only when he needs something. If not for Willie Harris, he might spend all his time working.

"We got married on Thanksgiving, and he's been thankful ever since," Willie Harris said. The couple married in 1952.

After raising three daughters together, the Harrises became more than husband and wife.

"We work as a team. We always have," Willie Harris said. She came on as a full-time employee of the fairgrounds in 1999, working for and with her husband.

Her job has her at work at 7 a.m., or maybe 5 a.m., depending on how busy things get. She answers phones, keeps the books and keeps things ready for her husband when he needs them.

"Behind every good man is a good woman," Caudle said. "Her job is keeping George lined up."

Keeping him lined up is tough. Harris is completely committed to the fairgrounds. During large events he often will come to work at 4 a.m.

"I didn't want anything to happen, and I wanted to be here if anything did," he said. "If I'm not here, I feel guilty. So I just come on."

Harris believes the fairgrounds is one of the county's most important assets.

"The facility has such an economic impact on the city of Columbia and the county," he said. "Everybody should be behind it."

He supports former Boone County Presiding Commissioner Ed Robb's plans to improve maintenance and upkeep of the fairgrounds while honoring contracts with events.

On one of his rare visits to town, Harris visited Lee's Tire Co. The man behind the counter thanked him for the business he got from a recent trappers convention held at the fairgrounds.

Harris said the economic boost the fairgrounds provide is important.

"Those people got to stay somewhere," he said of people who come to town for fairground events. "They got to eat."

Change in the works

The Boone County Commission has been deciding what to do with the fairgrounds since it bought the property for $2.6 million 12 years ago. At that time, Harris, who worked for Heartland Management Co., was hired by the fair board in a temporary lease agreement that has since become permanent.

The fairgrounds lost money for years, making only a small profit from the annual two-week county fair. Vicki Russell, president of the fair board from 1999 until 2009, said those small profits were used to subsidize operations for the rest of the year.

With limited revenue, maintenance of the facilities fell off. The main building, the Coliseum, requires $500,000 to $1 million in deferred maintenance costs, according to county commission estimates.

"It's not that I don't know and can't see all that needs to be done," Harris said. But without funds, "you have to make the best of it and go on."

Harris said that since 1999, the county has acted like a landlord who hears complaints from renters but forces them to fix the problems at their own expense.

"That's the way we've operated," he said. "I've always wondered and never been able to figure out why."

The county has had its differences with Harris as well. Russell said that when it first bought the fairgrounds, a few attempts were made to find new management, but nothing happened.

In work sessions and meetings, commission members have talked about the lack of good record keeping. Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin said the commission gets a list of total revenue and spending without specifics on particular events.

Willie Harris keeps the books then turns them over to Howe and Associate PC CPA, the fair board's accountant. The accountant puts together the monthly financial report, Russell said.

Those reports frustrate commissioners because they fail to separate costs and profits when multiple events occur at once, Russell said. The fairgrounds operate on a shoestring budget, and more sophisticated accounting would take a much larger investment.

Willie Harris said she pays no attention to commission complaints.

"I don't work with the commission. I work with the fair board," she said.

Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller said the commission wants to create more detailed accounting records. While listing only total costs and profits was what the fair board wanted, the commission requires full accounting of utility costs, numbers of employees needed and set-up costs for each event.

"I think (the Harrises) did as good a job as could be expected," Miller said. "They did exactly what their bosses wanted them to."

George Harris said the fairgrounds' problems lie in a lack of funding and not the manner in which that funding is recorded. Other fairgrounds, he said, get financial support from communities that recognize their importance.

His decision to retire was influenced by his perception of how the community and commission have acted toward the fairgrounds.

"I probably felt that after trying to convince the community since 1999 of the things they needed to participate in, I had failed at that," he said.

Commissioners, he said, have made it clear that they were "not happy with this management. They feel we haven't done as good a job as we should." After seeing the writing on the wall, he chose to retire.

Walking away

On Thursday, the commission, which will take over yearly operations of the fairgrounds from the fair board on Saturday, approved a three-month contract with TAG Events, which will get $45,000 from the county to cover operations.

This is the first time the county will provide a monthly allowance to the fairgrounds. Harris got no money from the commission and relied entirely on revenue from events for maintenance costs.

He hopes the new blood and the new infusion of money will generate the increased interest in the fairgrounds that he couldn't.

"They'll do a better job than I did," he said.

Despite past disagreement between Harris and the commission, many still feel a loss at his retirement.

"He's been out there almost 20 years and has done a lot for the fairgrounds on a shoestring's budget," Elkin said. "I'm certainly grateful for him. I'm sure citizens are, too."

"It's going to be hard to do without him," Caudle said. "I hope whoever takes over, we can work together as well as George and I have."

The Harrises plan to stay active in retirement.

"I'm most certainly not going home and sit down," he said. He will continue to run the draft horse and mule sale and make it bigger and better.

The call to keep working at the fairgrounds cannot be ignored. It's been his life for nearly 20 years, and he won't ever fully leave it.

"My heart has been in this since day one," he said.

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Patty Gilpin September 30, 2011 | 4:10 p.m.

Many Thanks to the Harrises for running the Boone County Fair Grounds for a little of nothing, and dedicating their life to a tradition that should be a part of every county. Recently, the Gateway Area Multiple Sclerosis Society St Louis held their MS 150 Bike ride here from our fair grounds, rather than from somewhere around St Louis. There were over 3,400 riders, not counting support personel, volunteers, families that came with the riders to camp out, or go shopping, site seeing, etc. This event which began Friday night and ended Sunday afternoon of September 10th, brought in a lot of revenue for Columbia.

I know not everyone likes Bicyclists, but is was for a good cause. If you could have been at the finish line, like I was and heard the wonderful compliments that was given to me about the accomodations we had at the Fair Grounds for the Bikers, how polite everyone in the city was to them, what a wonderful area this was, beacuse 90% of them were not from here.

We have got to come together with the Commission, the Fair Board and the Tax Payers, as we the Tax Payers are the ones who originally paid for the Fair Grounds to have these sorts of programs come into our community. Not just for Columiba, but the Commmunity of Boone County,

Patty Gilpin, Hartsburg

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