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And They Will Come

After a 155-year run in Richmond the State Fair of Virginia readies for a long-distance run in horse country.

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Kings Dominion has a new neighbor. Set to open next month, just east of the popular theme park on 360 storied acres that straddle Route 30, is the new Virginia state fairgrounds. But don't let the folks in charge hear you call it that.

“This is The Meadow Event Park,” clarifies Jay Lugar, the marketing director of the State Fair of Virginia, with an emphatic lift of his eyebrows. “The fair runs for only a few days each fall, but this is a year-round facility.”

With Sept. 24 fast approaching — D-Day for the fair at Meadow Event Park — Lugar acknowledges feeling stress during a recent afternoon tour, while he and a colleague wander the sprawling new Caroline County venue. It's been thoughtfully and carefully laid out along a wooded bank of the North Anna River after $81 million in investment and five years of planning and construction. In the best what's-old-is-new-again tradition, the state fair braces for its first season beyond the immediate cultural clutches of Richmond.

The State Fair is the region's longest-running show, dating back 155 years to Monroe Park, where the fair was inaugurated in 1854. Since then, the fair has touched down near Boulevard and Broad and its recently vacated home off Laburnum Avenue near the Richmond International Raceway.

Some 250,000 visitors are expected to pass through the new venue's gates during the 11-day run that ends Oct. 4. While the physical site and dozens of permanent and temporary buildings are being readied, a rebranding of the fair experience is under way, inspired by its now-rural location.

Goodbye to East Laburnum Avenue's suburban decay, with neighbors encouraging fairgoers to park in their front yards for a few bucks. Adios to the neon lights of surrounding streets rivaling the honky-tonk of the midway. Farewell to looming NASCAR grandstands, a not-so-subtle reminder that there's even bigger and sexier entertainment in town.

Hello green acres, fresh air and horse country. Welcome, Meadow Event Park.

  

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>The venue's new name and overall theme salutes Meadow Farm, the former estate on which it's built, and more generally the equine tradition of this part of Virginia. Historians cite Caroline County as the birthplace of thoroughbred horse racing in North America when, in the first half of the 18th century, Arabian horses were transported from England for breeding purposes.

In the 19th century the Doswell family, for which the locality is named, converted their place, Bullfield, into a stud farm. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, black jockeys from Caroline and Hanover counties achieved such racing success that their reputations spread beyond the state.

“The original Camptown races were held here,” Lugar says, pointing to an area on a diagram of Meadow Event Park that's been developed to accommodate equine events.

In 1936 Meadow Farm, the centerpiece of the site, was established by Christopher T. Chenery as a horse-breeding operation. The enterprise continued to flourish under the management of his daughter, Helen “Penny” Tweedy Chenery, until 1979. The farm gained international attention in 1972 when one of its prized stallions, Riva Ridge, won both the Belmont Stakes and the Kentucky Derby.

But that achievement was eclipsed the following year when Meadow Farm-born Secretariat won those races plus the Preakness Stakes for the first Triple Crown in 25 years. It boosted American spirits that had been demoralized by Vietnam and Watergate, and put Secretariat's picture on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated the same week. A Virginia highway historical marker just outside the park gate on a shoulder of Route 30 memorializes the champion thoroughbred, who's buried in Kentucky.

In addition to Riva Ridge and Secretariat, other notable 20th-century thoroughbreds, Hill Prince and Sun Beau, were raised at Meadow Farm.

As a kind of tribute to Secretariat's achievements, the State Fair has named three farmhouses on the grounds (converted to office use) Belmont, Derby and Preakness.


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>Preakness House is perched on the brow of a sprawling hillside at the easternmost edge of the park. From this point an impressive vista embraces most of the tract's 360 acres of open Piedmont. On a humid August afternoon a dark stretch of woods shields the North Anna River. In the hazy distance, the distinctive profile of Kings Dominion's ersatz Eiffel Tower breaks the horizon.

In the foreground, with parched grass, scrub brush, an occasional clump of trees, some gravel roads and parking lots, only a few large barnlike buildings and a recently widened stretch of Route 30 suggest that this panorama embraces a new home for the State Fair. There's no signage yet — not even at arrival and entry points. Meadow Event Park rests relatively gently on the landscape.

It was a touchy endeavor for the State Fair to convert hallowed grounds bordering a river into what will be a destination for hundreds of thousands of visitors annually — hungry for Ferris wheels, livestock competitions, tractor pulls and year-round activities.

In addition to equestrian legacy there was much earlier history to consider.

“For every building constructed here we executed an archeological dig working with historic resource officials,” says Curry Roberts, president of the State Fair. “Among the findings we made were some old campfire sites and other traces of the early woodland people.” Roberts says some of these artifacts will be included in the fair's Native American exhibit.

The planning and architecture team for the project included Knoxville, Tenn.-based Bullock Smith & Partners and landscape architect David Forkner, one of the nation's leading fairground planners (he worked on the 1982 World's Fair site in Knoxville as well on fairground designs in Minnesota, New Mexico and Texas). Timmons is the contractor.

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>The State Fair of Virginia acquired the Doswell site from Bear Island Paper in 2004 after a number of other locations in metropolitan Richmond had been ruled out or shot down. At that time, Caroline County had no zoning category to fit the scope of activity proposed. The site originally had been designated “rural preservation” (with a zoning requirement of one house per 10 acres). It was given a new “recreation and entertainment” zoning designation.

About a year of interjurisdictional negotiation and planning took place before excavation and construction began. “There were some complicated issues,” Roberts says of the radical transformation — for example, the challenges of getting water to the site and accommodating sewerage.

“It was important to do this right,” Lugar says. “There was very little deforestation. We worked to preserve open space.”


Setting out from Preakness House, it's clear at every bump and turn that either an agricultural or equestrian theme in general, or the legacy of thoroughbred racing in particular, were never far from planners' thoughts.

“We're going to have cattle over in there,” Lugar says, pointing to a fenced enclosure of raw earth, in the spirit of a golfer replacing a divot.

Arriving at the flatlands, Meadow Event Park's four-leaf-clover layout becomes apparent. The mostly open acreage has been divided evenly into two halves defined northern and southern by Route 30, which runs down the middle. The southern half of the park is split further by Meadow Farm Road, a winding stretch of country road.

Motorists arriving from the west on Route 30 from Route 1 or Interstate 95 will pass Kings Dominion, proceed about a mile and enter Gate 1 on the southeastern quadrant. This area is devoted almost entirely to parking — paved, gravel or on grass. Designated interwoven wetlands areas here have been replanted and should grow to heights that will soften the effect of the parking lots.

Leaving their cars, visitors will proceed on foot or via tram (depending on volume) a short distance westward and pass through a dramatically arched, 35-foot-wide pedestrian tunnel that that runs under Meadow Farm Road and connects with the southwestern quadrant.

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>Once through the tunnel, patrons arrive at the ticket plaza. Here nine separate ticket offices, all employing a barnlike motif with white clapboard and iconic blue trim, await ticket-buyers. Bus parking lots are located nearby, which will deliver thousands of schoolchildren to the site during the run of the fair.

The southwestern quad is the equine area, with fenced practice and competition rings and a large new stable. The Southern States Legends Stable, like all of the major facilities at the park, has a corporate name. Lugar says that during the fair this area will be the scene of draft-horse pulls, mounted-cowboy shooting competitions, bull riding, sheepdog trials and high-school rodeos. Throughout the year it should host some 50 horse shows.

Easy to miss next to the larger stable is a small unmarked, weathered, insignificant-looking white-frame barn. “That's the birthplace of Secretariat,” Lugar says. “It was moved here from across the Route 30 to make room for a larger building there, and it belongs in the equine area.”

Just south of the equine area is a large, undeveloped, grassy spread that has been set aside for future development as a steeplechase track. “That's maybe five years down the road,” Lugar says.

Back near the entrance ticket plaza is a broad lawn, which will be the site of the fair's festival stage. During the run of the inaugural fair a range of musical entertainment will be presented here, including Jason Michael Carroll, Percy Sledge and the Plain White T's — of country, soul and rock respectively. There's no fixed seating. Bring a lawn chair.

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>Leaving the equine and festival-stage quadrant, fairgoers may walk northward and pass through a second 35-foot-wide tunnel to reach the major entertainment and agricultural areas.

The entertainment area, on the northwestern quadrant, includes the festival loop featuring the midway, a so-called “kidway,” a “Heritage Village,” rides and a natural resources center.

“This is where you watch the racing pigs, can get cotton candy or a candied apple,” Lugar says. Then, gesturing toward a long, deep ditch, he points out the “thrill pit,” where motocross and demolition-derby competitions will be held. “It looks a little small to me for that, though,” he adds. “I can't wrap my head around it.”

The park's largest new structure is also located here, the Farm Bureau Center. It's a vast exhibition hall of 75,000 square feet on one floor (the space can be divided into two major halls, each with a separate entrance and catering kitchens). Although huge, the building captures the spirit of barn architecture with its white walls, blue trim and pitched roof. Nearby, many of Meadow Farm's original stables and farm buildings have been preserved and are being restored. “Those became the architectural standards for new buildings at the park,” Lugar says.

Moving up a wooded and landscaped hillside, visitors must pass by the main house at Meadow Farm to reach the fourth quadrant, the agriculture area.

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>The sprawling, modern brick house was built in the 1980s by Eric Freedlander. Once president of the nation's fourth-largest second-mortgage company, he became Richmond's own Bernard Madoff in 1991 when he was convicted of swindling institutional and individual investors (including fellow members of Congregation Beth Israel) of millions of dollars.

The house, rechristened Union Bank & Trust Hall, is being renovated as a special events space and be available for rental for activities ranging from corporate retreats to weddings. What makes the space especially attractive is the high elevation and mature landscaping on this part of the grounds. Handsome magnolias, remarkably huge oaks and large American boxwoods are evidence that this was once the site of the original Meadow Farm house, which was demolished in the 1980s.

An older outbuilding on the site is being renovated as a state police command center that will be operational year-round. “It's good, built-in insurance,” Lugar says.

Moving eastward past this most untouched area of the park development to the agriculture area, visitors will find livestock displays, including cattle shows and smaller animal displays. Commonwealth Hall will feature a technology center and home-arts displays and competitions. The Americraft Pavilion, an architecturally attractive 10,000-square-foot structure, will host domestic arts and other food and cooking programs.

On the upper edge of the agriculture quadrant, along a section of woods, is another link with Meadow Farm's equestrian heritage: a graveyard containing the remains of dogs and four horses. These include Sun Beau, an all-time money-earner until 1940 when Seabiscuit established a new record, and Hill Prince, “American Horse of the Year” in 1950. This spot is another reminder that the tract's history is never more than a few yards away.

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>By moving the State Fair 20 miles north of Richmond officials count on continued patronage from that area, as well as a significant draw from Fredericksburg and Northern Virginia.

“This whole fair is going to be a shakedown,” or test run, Lugar says. “ We don't know what's going to happen.” A weary smile shows while he considers the move beyond the traditional bonds of the capital city. “Some folks in Richmond have been skeptical about the move, while Fredericksburg has been receptive. But when they get here I think they'll all go, ‘Wow, this is serious.’ I can't wait.” S

The State Fair of Virginia runs Sept. 24-Oct. 4. Information at www.statefairva.org or 1-800-LUV-FAIR. The Meadow Highland Games & Celtic Festival follows the State Fair Oct. 24-25.

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