DOSWELL, Va.— Before bankers make a big deal, they like to run something called a Monte Carlo. It is named for the city in Monaco and its gambling houses, and it works like this: The lenders plug in the numbers and variables of a deal, then run a series of complex computer simulations to see what can go wrong. The fewer avenues to failure, the more confidence there is in a project’s success.
But as anyone who has ever lost money on a sure thing can attest, the odds are only odds. They are predictive — but only to a point. Which is why a few months back on a beautiful spring day, there was an auction in Caroline County, just beyond the shadow of the monster roller coaster at Kings Dominion. What all the Monte Carlos had indicated was extremely unlikely to happen had in fact happened.
The auction was not that different from the hundreds of thousands of foreclosure sales that have taken place on courthouse steps across America. A borrower had taken on too much debt and couldn’t repay the loans. The lenders’ patience was exhausted, and the negotiations through the bankruptcy process had failed. All that was left on this day was the singsong chant of the auctioneer that ends with the word “sold.”
The 331-acre property belonged to the State Fair of Virginia, which, for most of the past 150 years,has been the annual event where kids from the country showed sheep and where folks from the city wandered around eating corn dogs. In many places, the state fair is run by the government. Not in Virginia. A nonprofit group ran the fair. It had a board filled with important people who know how to get things done. They borrowed $85 million to build a new fairgrounds here, beyond the sprawl. Maybe it was a sound bet, but it was a bet just the same, and when circumstances changed, they lost everything and had to sell it all, down to the dirt.
This is land with a history, so beloved and remembered that for 300 years the heart of the property has been known simply as “The Meadow.” It was beautiful open land, cherished first by the Pamunkey Indians. It exists in hand-drawn maps and in the tight script of deeds written in the 1800s. It is where Secretariat was born and learned to run and later showed us what greatness looks like at full gallop. We are a possessive nation, and the Meadow is land people have wanted to possess.
This being Virginia, a noticeable number of people showed up for the auction in bow ties. But the man who placed the winning bid and agreed to pay about $5.7 million wore a Pink Floyd T-shirt. His name is Mark Lovell, and he runs Universal Fairs, a company based near Memphis that operates fairs and festivals in four states. Virginia will be the fifth. Lovell closed the deal in early July, bringing in the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation as a partner. They will open the State Fair of Virginia at the Meadow Event Park for a 10-day run on Sept. 28 with an expanded purpose beyond providing family entertainment and a venue for the big pumpkins and the Tilt-a-Whirl. The fair will also exist to make money. That is the price of possession.