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Columbus Fairgrounds: A history of great and terrible moments

 

Jane Jordan stands with her cattle dog Angel on the Columbus Fairgrounds, which she manages. The Columbus City Council has issued a moratorium on events at the fairgrounds for 90 days or until Jordan can come up with an action plan to combat what the council sees as a crime problem following a Dec. 26 shooting at a private party on the fairgrounds.

Jane Jordan stands with her cattle dog Angel on the Columbus Fairgrounds, which she manages. The Columbus City Council has issued a moratorium on events at the fairgrounds for 90 days or until Jordan can come up with an action plan to combat what the council sees as a crime problem following a Dec. 26 shooting at a private party on the fairgrounds. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff

 

Isabelle Altman

 

 

When Jane Jordan was a little girl, she showed cows she'd raised at the fair on the Columbus Fairgrounds where her father, Robert Burns, was property manager.  

 

Now, she is the president of the Columbus Fair and Livestock Association and manages the fairgrounds that, for the next 90 days and possibly longer, will sit dormant. 

 

The Columbus City Council last week enacted a moratorium on all fairgrounds events until Jordan can present an action plan to tone down what city leaders see as a burgeoning crime problem there. 

 

In the last three years, the fairgrounds have been the scene of two shootings, one of them fatal. The second shooting -- which injured 25-year-old Jeremy Wells of Columbus at a party of more than 200 people on Christmas, resulted in Jordan being charged with violating a city ordinance requiring property managers to notify police of large events at facilities they've rented out. 

 

Police have not yet arrested a suspect in the shooting. 

 

"According to the city council, they can shut me down completely," Jordan said. "It's in the city ordinance...if they're not happy with me, they can shut me down completely." 

 

 

 

Fairgrounds history and organization 

 

The Columbus Fair and Livestock Association -- a nonprofit organization registered with the Mississippi Secretary of State's Office -- bought the fairgrounds in 1954, according to Lowndes County documents. Not long after, Jordan's father, Robert Burns, began working for the fairgrounds and eventually became general manager.  

 

"Fair and Livestock was a big deal in those days," Jordan said. "Schools closed. You got out of school and they had kids' day. ...They had singing, they had beauty contests, they had cattle shows where the cattle stayed in the barn for the whole week of the fair." 

 

Roller derbies, coon dog judging contests, dirt bike competitions and more graced the fairgrounds against a backdrop of local merchants selling their wares. Jordan, herself, would present the cows that she had raised from infancy, alongside other local kids involved in farming and agriculture.  

 

But Jordan never expected to run the fairgrounds. She only began helping her father about a year before he died in 2011. He had become president of the Columbus Fair and Livestock Association in the 1980s.  

 

It was around that time when the popularity of the fair began to decline, Jordan said. Crowds at the fair became smaller, and city and county officials stopped coming as often.  

 

That's when Burns began renting the facilities out for private parties to help keep the fairgrounds running, Jordan said.  

 

But there are still fairs, now run by American Dare Devils. Mississippi Brawl Stars uses the grounds for their home roller derby bouts, and the Roast-n-Boast, a barbecue competition that raises money for St. Jude Children's Hospital, is held there. Or at least those things have been there prior to the moratorium. 

 

These events don't make the news though, Jordan said. What does make the news are the occasional fights and the two high-profile shootings in the last three years. 

 

"It's sad," Jordan said. "What people don't see is who uses that fairground. They hear something bad happens, and it's 'another shooting at the fairgrounds.'" 

 

 

 

When trouble started 

 

The trouble began in the 2000s, Jordan said. A new generation in their late teens and early 20s would rent the fairgrounds out for private parties.  

 

At a graduation party in May 2014, 21-year-old Devin Montgomery was shot dead at the fairgrounds. Six months later, the city council enacted an ordinance requiring owners of property rented out for gatherings of more than 100 people where alcohol would be consumed to file for a permit. The ordinance requires that property owners file for a permit with the city at least five days before the event. 

 

"The procedure of acquiring a permit for events that meet the criteria does several things," CPD Chief Oscar Lewis said. "First, it allows us to be notified of the event and we can plan ahead and put these items on the calendar for patrol." 

 

The ordinance also gives officers the times and dates of the events and lets them know how many people should be attending, Lewis added.  

 

City authorities did not comment on whether the CPD routinely sends extra patrols to the area or whether the fairgrounds have more problems than other parts of Columbus. 

 

Since the ordinance passed, Jordan has filed for event permits 19 times -- which accounts for all the permits requested under the ordinance since its passage. There was never a problem until Dec. 26, 2016, Jordan said, when a shooting in the parking lot sent one Christmas party goer to North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo with a gunshot wound to the back of the hip. 

 

CPD officers hadn't known about the party. Jordan hadn't filed for an event permit because she claims the renter, Jennerio Jones, indicated the party would include less than 100 attendees and alcohol would not be served. Turns out, more than 200 showed and alcohol was present. 

 

In response, the council summoned Jordan to its Tuesday meeting and issued the moratorium -- meaning no parties, no fairs, no anything there while it is in place. 

 

"At the Jan. 3 meeting, there were many unanswered questions from the council concerning the procedures being used to monitor events at the fairgrounds that involved groups of over 100 people and beer or alcohol," Mayor Robert Smith said. "That is why the 90-day hold was put into place -- to allow the procedures to be developed for the fairgrounds." 

 

 

 

What happens next 

 

Jordan hopes to have a plan for the council's next meeting Jan. 17, but does not know how to stop the violence. 

 

She said all the parties where violence has occurred involved "young people," but she fears being too strict on who can rent fairgrounds facilities could expose her to legal liability. 

 

But one thing's for sure, she doesn't want the fairgrounds to close. It's still an important place to learn about agriculture and farming, she said. 

 

"If all of the sudden all the farming stopped, people would die, because they don't know how to plant a plant, they don't know how to harvest a crop," Jordan said. "They don't even know where to start. That's what the fairgrounds was all about at one time."

 

 

 

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