The decision to sell beer at the Haywood County Fair was met with pushback from some members of the community, raising questions about whether or not the family-friendly event will suffer from alcohol sales.
This year marks the first time alcohol will be sold and consumed during the annual county fair, but it’s technically been an option ever since the passage of countywide alcohol sales in 2016.
Voters overwhelmingly approved countywide alcohol sales on the ballot that year, with 68 percent in support of on-premise beer sales anywhere in the county. Before, alcohol could only be sold inside town limits.
Haywood County Fairgrounds Manager Chris Caldwell pointed to the landslide margin in discussing the board’s decision.
“It is an accepted thing this day and time, and it is at all other events at the county,” Caldwell said.
The Maggie Valley Festival Grounds allows alcohol sales, as does the Canton Labor Day Festival.
During the Aug. 19, meeting of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners, Commissioner Mark Pless said he’d heard numerous community members and organizations express their disappointment, not only with the decision to sell beer but also the way in which the decision was made.
“I believe that the people were shortchanged, and not given the opportunity to make any input whatsoever in that decision,“ Pless said.
Fair organizers made the decision months ago to allow beer sales during the fair, but the fairgrounds board never officially endorsed it.
“Technically, a vote was not required because it was allowed within the fairground’s guidelines,” Caldwell said.
However, County Commissioner Tommy Long, who serves on the fair board, asked for a formal vote on the issue at a fair board meeting last week. The vote was 3-2 in favor of allowing beer sales.
Long was one of the nay votes, and the other nay vote was Ben Wilder, who’s on the staff of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. During the meeting, Wilder said he didn’t oppose alcohol sales on moral grounds but instead cited potential liability issues.
By the time word spread that alcohol sales would be permitted at the fair, though, many organizations had already signed up for their booths for this year’s event.
Some, like the Haywood County Republican Party, took issue with the timing of it all. The party called an emergency meeting last Friday to vote on whether to move forward with their booth at the fair, but ultimately members voted not to withdraw their booth.
During the Aug. 19 meeting, Pless said he felt the fair and its board had done a disservice to those sponsors by not coming forward with the decision before sign-ups began.
“The sponsors were not told, and I think that should have been mentioned before they paid and before they were willing to commit,” Pless said. “I don’t like that being done, and I’m not happy with the fairgrounds. Everything I’ve been told so far is I can’t do anything about it, but I would like to do something about it, to put it on the agenda and address it and try to give the people input. That’s what we’re here for.”
While the county owns the fairgrounds, the fair is technically an independent, nonprofit corporation. The county board appoints the members of the fair’s board of directors, but County Attorney Frank Queen said the commissioners do not have oversight over how the fair operates as long as they comply with the applicable state laws and the terms of its lease with the county.
“Can the county prohibit the sale of alcohol on the fairgrounds in this instance? My opinion is that the county, by ordinance, cannot regulate the sale of alcohol out in the county. The regulation of the sale of alcohol is governed by the state ABC laws and the regulations published by the state ABC board,” Queen said. “Those regulations, if they are complied with in the county in the operation of this facility, trump any local ordinance.”
For Pless and others in the community, the county fair represents a break from many of the hardships endured by people in Haywood County, and Pless said he felt alcohol could negatively impact that environment.
“It’s been a family event for years,” he said. “It’s been shielded from a lot of the things that happen in this county, and to shortchange the people that participate in it is bad.”
Whether one agrees with the decision to sell beer or not, it seems clear that it will be a significant boost to the financial outlook for this year’s event. Caldwell said that sort of income generation could make a big difference for future events at the fairgrounds.
“There is a huge return on investment and we need to be doing it,” Caldwell said. “That is a revenue stream we need as we work toward being totally self-sustaining.”
Other events held at the county fairgrounds have sold alcohol before, including a three-night horse show held earlier this month as a fundraiser for Meals on Wheels.
Eddie Bryant, a member of the fairgrounds board, helped with some of background work for the horse show, and he said the restrictions on alcohol consumption put in place ahead of time were sufficient to keep issues from arising.
“They’re trying to do it right. You can’t just sell it in the middle of the street,” Bryant said. “You have it in a confined place. When they asked me about it, I said I didn’t have a problem with it but you have to have law enforcement there.”
During the horse show, the sale and consumption of beer was restricted to an area next to the Great Smokies Arena, away from the kids area.
Those same restrictions will apply during the fair, and signs at the arena exits will alert fairgoers not to take their beers beyond the arena gates.
“You can’t take a beer into the midway, or be drinking as you walk all over the fairgrounds, or sit and watch the livestock shows with a beer,” Caldwell said.
There will also be a Haywood County Sheriff’s deputy onsite in the arena.
The fairgrounds board had updated its policies to allow the sale and consumption of alcohol at the fairgrounds at the time, but never exercised that option during the fair before.
“We just never opted to do that,” Caldwell said.