State fair organizers ponder move Space is needed for performances, exhibits, officials say

Squeezed at Timonium site

Board seeks 400 acres of flat land near Beltway, I-83 exits

August 27, 1998|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Hemmed in by stores and warehouses, the Maryland State Fair, which opens tomorrow, might move from the Timonium site it has occupied for more than a century.

Organizers like their location but say they need more space for exhibits and big-name entertainment. They hired an agent recently to search for 300 to 400 acres in Baltimore County, said Max Mosner, vice president and general manager of the nonprofit Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society.

"We started looking, secretly, through a commercial property expert in the area for a new site," Mosner said.

He said the fair board is committed to staying in Baltimore County to keep from competing with the established fairs in other Maryland counties. The board wanted 400 acres of mostly flat land near Beltway and I-83 interchanges, with public water and sewer.

"There was no such animal," Mosner said.

But a generous offer for the current fairgrounds, valued at $65 million, could persuade the board of directors to look again, said Mosner. That amount would cover the cost of building a new fairgrounds, he said.

"If someone said, 'Hey, I'll give you $80 million for this place,' we'll always talk to them," Mosner said. "It never hurts to talk."

When the 117th annual fair opens tomorrow, the first of a half-million people expected to flow through the gates will step onto a 100-acre fairground that might groan if it could speak.

The showcase for Maryland's largest industry -- agriculture -- is squeezed by retail outlets and warehouses that rule out the expansion its organizers dream about.

Anyone who would walk the perimeter of the fairgrounds -- starting east from Timonium and Deereco roads -- can have lunch at the Steak & Ale, gaze at an Infiniti at Nationwide Auto, pick up a bottle of Chanel at the Cosmetic Center, then turn north on York Road to the Loews cinemas for a movie, and finish the evening with dinner at the Turf Inn.

To the north of the fairgrounds is a residential community -- West Timonium Heights -- where residents have feared that the fairgrounds could encroach on their neighborhood. The board has bought some land there but is sensitive to the residents' concerns, Mosner said.

"We want to be good neighbors," he said.

Expansion could bring big-name entertainment and a stage to hold it. An expanded fairgrounds also could accommodate crowd-pleasing but space-eating exhibits such as the Heritage Village that takes visitors back in time at Virginia's state fair. It could lure back commercial exhibitors who would pay to show off their latest tractors and combines while doing brisk sales in toys, chain saws, and lawn and garden equipment.

Perhaps most important, expansion could help the fair draw twice as many visitors as it does, which means more money to improve the facility and provide 4-H prize and scholarship money, Mosner said.

The society grossed $7.5 million last year. Of that amount, about $1.6 million came from off-season trade shows and conventions such as the automobile show, which lease the grounds from the fair board. The facility is rented for about 200 events a year.

Of the total revenue, $508,329 was profit, Mosner said. That was about twice the normal profit because of a one-time gift and an all-time high in midway revenue; people spent a lot of money on rides last year.

Survey confirms hunch

A consultant with a California-based survey company that works with state fairs across the country did a study that confirmed Mosner's hunch: The fair could attract a million people if it had more space, especially for parking.

In the 400-acre dream site in his head, Mosner would need about 300 acres for parking. The space for exhibits would need to be only about 100 acres.

Light rail has provided fair-goers with an alternative to driving, Mosner said.

And even with all the competition from new baseball and football stadiums and other attractions around the metropolitan area, Mosner said, the fair continues to attract.

"There are still a lot of people out there," he said.

Pub Date: 8/27/98

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