Written By Cari Pierce

You may have attended a 4-H Fair at the Carroll County Agricultural Center. Or a rodeo, a monster truck bash, dog show or sportsman’s expo. And you may have thought that taxpayers were footing some of the bill for all that education and entertainment. If so, you would have been way off base.

Like many of its counterparts around the U.S., the Carroll County Agricultural Center & Shipley Arena – known locally as “the Ag Center”- is a private 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation It is not County owned, operated or funded and it is a financially self-sustaining entity. Its earnings help support several local groups: Pomona Grange, Farm Bureau, Farm Bureau Women, Farm Bureau Young Farmers, Family Community Education [formerly the Carroll County Council of Homemakers], 4-H Leaders and 4-H Club All Stars.

If there is any place in Carroll County that embodies both the County’s past and the promise of its future, the Ag Center must be it.

In 1954, explained Lawrence Meeks, president of the Ag Center’s 17-member board of directors, “a group, part of which was led by Landon Burns, a county executive at that time, got together. They wanted to form an ag center where member groups could have a facility to do things, and hold meetings and educational kinds
of events.”

“We serve the member groups and their interests to promote agriculture, to promote the FCE [Family Community Education] programs, and to promote 4-H and the FFA programs,” said Meeks.
“[These] member groups have first use of the facility and then, when it is not being used by the member groups, it’s available for rent to the general public,” said Meeks. “That, in a nutshell, is how it works.”

And it does work. The Ag Center facility and its member groups continue to grow and thrive as the Center provides the Carroll community with an attractive, unique and multi-purpose facility for family-style events and entertainment.

With eight buildings on the 13-acre property it owns and operates, the Ag Center plays host to more than 50 repeating events each year. It earned more than $100,000 just in rental income in 2005.

The biggest single event at the Ag Center is undoubtedly the annual Carroll County 4-H and FFA Fair, now in its 109th year. The Fair has been held at the Ag Center since the Center was founded and, together, each has flourished.

The 2006 Fair – from July 29-August 4 – featured 61 departments, ranging from Dairy Cattle and Vegetable, Flower and Herb Gardens to Rocketry and Public Speaking.

“The number [of entries] is usually around 800,” said Mary Ellen Arbaugh, the 4-H administrative assistant at Carroll County’s Maryland Cooperative Extension office. “The number of actual exhibits that come to the fair is pretty close to 11,000.”

“Our county fair has grown tremendously,” said Arbaugh, “but it still keeps a lot of the same values that we once had. There are many more opportunities offered for the children to exhibit than there once were because there are more educational projects available to them.”

As Carroll County continues to grow and change, Lynn Talbert, the vice chairperson of the 2006 4-H and FFA Fair, sees 4-H and the Fair keeping pace. “Folks moving in are really exploring the opportunities that 4-H and the Fair have to offer. We’re very proud and excited about that. The Fair and the

4-H programs help keep our tradition of being an agricultural community.”

In 2004, the 4-H and FFA Fair was the first event in the Ag Center’s Shipley Arena. The 53,000-square-foot building is a state-of-the-art facility that can accommodate up to 7,000 people. In contrast to the Center’s pole barns and smaller buildings, the Arena’s grand faade denotes the community’s resolute support for the Center and confirms the Center’s intended role in Carroll County’s future.

One day soon, if Larry Collins’ vision for the Ag Center is fully realized, it may become the preferred local place for business meetings, fundraisers and music concerts.

Perhaps this year’s Fair theme, “The Next Frontier,” presages that goal.

Collins, the Ag Center’s General Manager since 2004, brings an impressive resume of marketing, new business development, operations and entertainment experience to the Ag Center.

Although Collins resolutely vows “we’re here for agriculture,” with equal conviction he talks of promoters and producers, of events and entertainment, of occasions and opportunities.

“We have a lot of things cooking,” says Collins, “stuff that we didn’t think we’d get as quickly as we’re getting.”

“The sportsman show, the dog shows, the car shows, the motorcycle shows and such – they’re circuit shows that come out of other towns and they look for places just like ours. Our socioeconomic group is very intriguing to themÉ so people want to come out here. And, also, our base of patrons doesn’t want to go back into Baltimore city or over to Howard County or up to Elkton, so if we can book events that they want to see here, that’s what we’re going to do.”

In addition to the high-exposure events held at Shipley Arena, it may surprise some to learn that the Ag Center’s other buildings are locations for wedding receptions, birthday parties and business meetings. It’s clear, however, that Collins’ focus is on growing the Arena’s event calendar by showcasing the facility’s versatility.

Events can occupy the entire Arena or it can be sectioned off into halves or thirds – depending on the space needed.

“From January 1 to March 31, we have the [J Bar W Ranch] rodeo here,” Collins says. “They occupy the north end of the arenaÉ but we have the option of having other events on the south end, and we’re getting to a point where almost every weekend we’ve got something
in that south end,” says Collins. “So we can do a chili cook-off, which we do, and use a third
of the arena, somewhere around 18,000
square feet.”
Bull riding, scrapbook shows, craft fairs and hunting and fishing expos have no problem drawing crowds to the Ag Center, but concerts are Collins’ big new initiative. “That’s real important to us,” he says. “I’ve been working very hard with people in New York, talent agents and local promoters
to get some real good music
out here.”

Collins is talking country music, rock and roll or punk rock – “it can be anything,” he said.

With an industrial kitchen, meeting rooms, the Arena’s flexible staging options and parking for 2,000 people, Collins said, “we’ve got everything anybody who wants to throw an event in this
caliber could wantÉ and the price is right.”

Collins is no stranger to the concert scene. He used to run the Civic Center in Baltimore – now the Baltimore Arena.

“I did everything from running [the] building to booking acts and working with Sugar Ray Leonard, Elvis Presley and Kiss,” he said.

Predictably, Collins is proud of the facility he runs. “You’re not going to find anything like this on most fair lots,” he says. “You’ll see all kinds of other building configurations, some much bigger than this, but in terms of the way this is set up, the thought that’s gone into it, the systems and operations behind it, this is absolutely as good as it gets.”

The community is taking notice. More locally produced events are starting up and using the Ag Center’s facilities. “Any business, any family or anybody that’s ever wanted to promote an event – whether it’s a scrapbook show or a gun show or a computer show or a ham radio show – whatever it happens to be, I’d like to talk to them,” Collins said. “We are interested in growing and nurturing
new promoters and having events here.”

And, if you’re looking for an alternative to a basket bingo to raise cash for your organization, the Ag Center offers a wide variety of fundraising opportunities such as a circus, concert or flea market. Collins introduces groups to whatever company owns that kind of entertainment to get the planning ball rolling and then offers the Center’s assistance
to help market and promote
the event.

For those who may question how the Carroll County Ag Center can remain steadfast in its support of agriculture by way of a future filled – potentially – with concerts, you need only look to the thriving agricultural member groups who benefit from the Center’s continued profitability and success.