Ralph Shoptaw found the gears already turning nicely when he took over in mid-May for the retired Jim Pledger as general manager of the Arkansas State Fair. Plans were already in place to bring in some name music entertainment — for example, modern rock band Better Than Ezra and classic rock band Grand Funk Railroad — for this year’s event Oct. 7-16.
“We have a really good staff here and a lot of the work was done before I came,” he said. “It takes all year to put a fair on, so they had been planning and putting things in place before I got here.”
Shoptaw, who started his career in the fair business at Texarkana’s Four-States Fair and Rodeo and worked there 13 years, says the transition “has gone smoothly.”
The Fair is the big show, but barely a weekend passes without some activity on the grounds. Shoptaw anticipates few major changes in the setup. He just wants to enjoy some time around the animals during the State Fair.
“I have somewhat of a livestock and agriculture background,” he said. “I minored in agriculture in college. We had a cattle farm at Texarkana until after I got out of college. So, I have a real desire to bring agriculture and livestock to the forefront with this fair. I’d like to see us focus more on agriculture and livestock, since they are such a big part of the state’s economy.”
Dan Sawyer, who joined the Fairgrounds after Barton Coliseum’s hockey team, his previous employer, dissolved, handles marketing and sponsorships. Hans Vanderwerff is the Fairgrounds’ assistant manager in charge of operations. Mason Ellenberger is the events director who lined up the bands for the State Fair. Those acts, incidentally, will be free with a regular fair admission.
Shoptaw’s ties to the State Fairgrounds date to longtime manager Johnnie Holmes. “He was a really close friend of mind and somewhat a mentor for me. I spent some time up here during the Fair and he taught me the business. I learned my way all around these fairgrounds. I also knew Jim Pledger for several years.”
So, when Pledger announced he was stepping down, the 58-year-old Shoptaw, who had been running the DeGray Lake State Park lodge for the past six years, applied for the job.
“It’s actually been a lifelong dream of mine to be here. My goal was to ultimately be the general manager of the Arkansas State Fair.”
Shoptaw served 10 years on the state Fair Managers Board, including a year as president, and was elected to the Fair Managers Hall of Fame. “Fair business is pretty much in my blood,” he said.
Last week, Shoptaw saw part of the Fairgrounds turned into a temporary home for evacuees from New Orleans. He said that only about 100 were on the grounds at midweek, and they were being relocated — the Fairgrounds had a Hunter Expo scheduled that was expected to draw several thousand people, just a week after the state’s biggest horse show was held there.
Although concerts have moved almost exclusively to Alltel Arena, Barton Coliseum has activity, Shoptaw said. “There are a wide range of meetings and conferences there. The entire horse show was in there. It’s not sitting dark.”
The State Fair on average attracts more than 400,000 folks for everything from the professional rodeo to the midway rides and games to the monster truck show. A $39.95 family value pack will include four tickets, a parking pass, and food and ride coupons.
Some questions for fair buff Shoptaw:
Favorite fair food? “I like a all of it. What I do is always get a corn dog. That is THE original fair food to me. There are so many other things, though, like hand-dipped ice cream. At the Maryland State Fair, where I went last week, you could get the vanilla ice cream dipped in chocolate. We’ve got lots of food. This is a food fair, and a lot of people come just for the food.”
Favorite fair music? “Basically country. I used to book some acts at the fair in Texarkana, some old rock ’n’ roll acts like Billy Joe Royal. I’m kind of wide ranging, though.”
Favorite ride? “The one called the Cliffhanger. It’s pretty scary. I like some of those old rides like the Himalaya and the Ring of Fire.”
Given the choice of one barn on the grounds to visit during the Fair, which would it be? The cows. Beef cattle. That’s what I used to raise. But that children’s barnyard is pretty neat, too.”