The energy that it takes to run a mammoth organization that has a 157-year-old track record could be rather exhausting if leadership is not up to par. But leadership has never been a problem for the staff and volunteers of the annual Mid-South Fair; it just keeps growing and evolving.
In March, Jesse V. Johnson was handed the reins of leadership as the Fair's executive director, moving quickly to the helm after he was hired in August 2012 as director of Marketing and Sponsorship Services. Four months later, he was promoted to director of Administrative and Financial Services and Marketing.
The long-running Fair, founded in 1856 "to create a cultural and entertainment experience" for the entire family, is steep in history. Bearing this in mind, Johnson underscores the importance of history, but also understands that diversity and options can enhance the Fair's appeal during its 10-day run, Sept. 20-29, at the Landers Center in Southaven, Miss.
Once a staple at the Mid-South Fairgrounds in Memphis, the Mid-South Fair moved to Southaven in 2009. In 2012, more than 75,000 people attended the Fair over a 10-day period at the Landers Center.
While the Landers Center is a strategic location for the Fair, including lots of parking, Johnson said the facility lacks space for livestock shows, a tradition that concerns agricultural enthusiasts.
"While we don't have room to place livestock, we're bringing back agricultural programs, something people have been asking us to do," Johnson said.
With a 9-member board of directors and full-time staff working year-round, Johnson said there are goals that he will pursue. "I want to put on a fair each year, making sure that it's financially healthy. And I want the Fair to be around for another 157 years."
To bring these goals into view, Johnson said he'll carry out the Fair's mission: to educate and connect the region to its agricultural heritage by promoting local industry, provide safe family-oriented entertainment, and reward agricultural and craft achievement through an annual exposition.
He also wants to create awareness and improve attractions to increase attendance. Between the opening day and the closing, fair-goers can expect loads of fun, good food, contests, games and a multi-million dollar midway, Johnson said.
"We have a lot of new options and attractions. We have created diverse programs – something for everybody – from the couch potato to senior citizens to small children. I want the Fair to represent the entire community," said Johnson, 48, the second African-American to lead the non-profit since Belinda Anderson's tenure as executive director and board president.
"Every person can participate," he said, adding, "We're offering ride wristbands each day at the Fair. People can ride until their heart is content."
There is a theme each day, and $1 dollar off an adult general admission will be donated to a non-profit, college or church. On "Church Day," for example, $1 dollar from each admission will be sent to the church's youth department.
"If you bring your church program or envelop with the name of the church and address on it, we'll send a dollar to the church," Johnson pointed out.
The Mid-South Fair is the only non-profit in this community that supports other agencies, Johnson said. Some of those agencies are The House of Grace, which provides homes for pregnant teens; the Memphis Child Advocacy Center, which raises a flag for every child in the Mid-South who dies from abuse; and the Mid-South Food Bank, an organization that feeds families.
"There are a lot of things you can do for a $10 admission," said Johnson, which include K-9's in Flight, dogs from animal shelters trained to perform; Kid Davie Magic Show; 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament; Swine Racing; NASCAR Remote Control Racing; Roller Derby; Livestock Breeding Sheep Show; and Livestock Poultry Show.
The 10-day event is not complete without its entertainment component. "We have the world renowned youth talent contest," said Johnson, citing local talent that achieved remarkable success in later years, such as Elvis Presley, Justin Timberlake and Wendy Moten.
Several entertainers and acts are scheduled to perform each day at the Fair. Some of them include Blind Mississippi Morris, "American Idol's" Nick Boddington, Michaelyn Oby, Zealous, Flight 2, Jack's JAM at the MSF, Jack Powell Jr. & Triplethret, The Navy Brass Quintet, North Mississippi Allstars, Maggie Thorn, The Original Bluff City Clan, and a GospelFest Sing-Off.
"Talent scouts from all over the country will be at the Fair to observe the talent," Johnson said. "Last year's winner auditioned for Nickelodeon and other networks."
There are other attractions as well, including new rides, a cultural marketplace, and a dance competition. The "Miss Mid-South Fair" is back after it was dropped four years ago. Thea Wilkens-Reed, 16, was crowned "Miss Mid-South Fair 2013."
Seven to 10 scholarships are awarded each year to deserving students who get involved in the Mid-South Fair's programs," Johnson said.
Although attendance has dwindled to some degree after the move to Landers Center, Johnson said, "We are very happy with the Landers Center. We realize there are some restraints, but North Mississippi has welcomed us."
He said the organization is seeking a permanent home, but has no plans to move any time soon.