A governor’s order that triggered a leadership shakeup at the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville drew criticism and bewilderment Tuesday from members of the committee that oversees the 41-year-old event.
The shakeup has prompted fears about the future of the event, which generates upwards of $18 million in estimated impact to the Kentucky economy. One member of the NAILE Executive Committee said the expo creates as much “positive press and feeling for Louisville as the Kentucky Derby.” A Kentucky State Fair Board member called it the “Super Bowl of livestock.”
On June 23, Gov. Steve Beshear signed an order expanding the size of the Fair Board to 21 from 15 members. What generated controversy, however, was a provision giving the Fair Board president the additional jobs as NAILE general manager and chairman of its executive committee. The current president is Clifford “Rip” Rippetoe.
By putting Rippetoe in charge of the committee, the governor essentially deposed the well-known shorthorn cattle breeder Jack Ragsdale, who is considered by many to be the face of the livestock expo. The 89-year-old Prospect resident was a founding member of the NAILE committee in 1974 and, until June, its chairman all these years.
The executive order led to two other casualties. One was Harold Workman, also an original committee member and Rippetoe’s predecessor as Fair Board president for 20 years. As the committee’s unpaid vice chairman, he worked for the expo on a voluntary basis, but was told his services were no longer needed. Also gone is Corinne Fetter, who resigned after losing her job as expo general manager to Rippetoe.
That was the backdrop of Tuesday’s meeting of the NAILE Executive Committee. What began as a staid affair spilled into heartfelt expressions of frustration over the departures or, as committee member Dennis Liptrap of Nicholasville put it, the “elephant in the room.”
“I have yet to see why we needed a change in the leadership of the committee,” said Liptrap, chairman of the Swine Advisory Committee. “We’ve operated 40 years under Jack’s leadership. That’s the way it was set up originally, and I don’t see that it’s malfunctioned during this period of time.”
Board member James Rudolph of Murray, chairman of the Equine Advisory Committee, said he was offended by the governor’s changes because committee members had not been consulted or notified beforehand. Looking across the table at Roger Thomas, Beshear’s executive director of agricultural policy, Rudolph said Ragsdale’s removal was “unpardonable.”
“There is a lot of discontentment in the animal industry,” he said. “To pull the 2015 (expo) off is going to take a miracle.”
Along with the Kentucky State Fair and the National Farm Machinery Show, the North American — as it’s known in the livestock world — is one of the big three events hosted annually by the State Fair Board. The 10-day expo and rodeo, which runs from Nov. 3-20, is billed as the biggest show for purebred livestock in the world, drawing more than 220,000 exhibitors and visitors. Going into 2014, its impact on the Kentucky economy was estimated to be $11 million. On Tuesday, Rippetoe pegged it at about $18 million.
With all the logistics involved in bringing nearly 30,000 head of cattle, swine, sheep, goats, horses and llamas to Louisville less than three months from now, committee members said they don’t want to risk botching — and possibly losing — the expo.
“The thing that concerns me the most with the loss of Corinne and Harold … is what’s up here,” Liptrap said, pointing at his head. “There’s hundreds of thousands of items that, if they fall through the cracks, it won’t be a fun show.”
Liptrap’s fellow board members unanimously agreed. The board passed Rudolph’s motion to reach out to Workman and Fetter with an offer to return to their duties as consultants, if not as employees. Reached last night, Fetter said it was premature to comment.
Workman said he has not been contacted. He said he would welcome a return to the livestock expo, but added that the “devil’s in the details.”
Liptrap, though, wasn’t finished. Visibly distraught and struggling for words, he asked Rippetoe point-blank to resign as committee chairman in favor of Ragsdale’s return, in essence asking him to disregard his appointment by the governor. “I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the North American to exercise that order,” Liptrap said.
At that, Thomas intervened. He asked Liptrap to table his request until he could “resolve” the issue in Frankfort. He didn’t say how. Liptrap consented to a delay of “a couple of weeks.”
A spokesman for the governor’s office has not yet responded to questions about the June 23 order and the request that Rippetoe step down as chairman.
Ragsdale, who attended the meeting and sat next to Rippetoe at the head of the table, said nothing critical about anyone — or anything. After the meeting, he praised the board for its decision to reinstate Workman and Fetter.
“They’re two very dear friends of mine, and they’re the most qualified people in the United States to manage shows and keep the agricultural enterprise going,” Ragsdale said.
Reporter James McNair can be reached at email@example.com or (502) 814.6543.
(Photo credit: James McNair)
This story was reported by Louisville Public Media’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.