Heavy equipment used for making improvements at the Exchange Club Fairgrounds sits idle Wednesday during frequent rain storms passing through the area.
ALBANY, Ga. -- For longtime Albany residents, a drive up to the main entrance of the Exchange Club Fairgrounds stirs feelings that are equal parts anticipation and nostalgia.
This is, after all, where generations of area families have come for the thrills and excitement of the annual fall fair. The livestock arena, the exhibit pavilion, the demolition derby ring, the small buildings on the midway are all as familiar to Southwest Georgians as any of the shopping districts they frequent in the area.
Keep walking east, though, past all those familiar buildings along the fairgrounds proper, and a startling change becomes apparent. Land that once was significant only for its insignificance -- acre after acre marked only by indistinguishable pine trees and scrub brush -- is undergoing a transformation. Heavy machinery is taking down some of those pines, collecting and hauling off equipment that has long sat abandoned and a large controlled fire eliminates inert materials cleared from the 106 acres owned by the Exchange Club Fairgrounds of Southwest Georgia.
The work is part of the ongoing effort to turn the fairgrounds into the site of a three-day music and arts festival. And it's also evidence that that festival, now known as the Georgia Throwdown, is being put together by a group that leaves little to chance and does nothing halfway.
"This is our way of saying we're serious about this festival, about its future in Albany," said businessman Sam Shugart, who is the heart and soul of the Sowega Music and Arts Festival Georgia Throwdown, scheduled at the fairgrounds Oct. 12-14. "When we talked with the Exchange Club about renting the fairgrounds, we assured them they would get value beyond the rental of the grounds and the parking revenue they'll generate.
"We're creating a vested interest for the Exchange Club to want to work with us next year and the year after. The reason we're spending our time, our energy and our resources to spruce up the fairgrounds is to offer proof that we intend to keep coming back."
Along with time, energy and resources, Shugart and his Throwdown team are also spending money, a lot of it. By his estimates, the group will have poured between $100,000 and $150,000 into their efforts to clean up the fairgrounds and make it more fan-friendly, camper-friendly and sponsor-friendly.
Those efforts are not lost on the Exchange Club, which raises funds to benefit charitable groups and provide educational opportunities for local students.
"There's no question Sam and his group have improved our property," Exchange President Skip Nichols said. "Things that our membership had hoped to get to at some point -- hauling off materials on the property, cleaning underbrush, organizing stored materials -- they're doing for us.
"With them taking care of the land well beyond the 45 acres or so we use during the fair, our members are now sprucing up the on-site facilities. We're completely upgrading the restrooms and doing work on the other buildings. The work they're doing for the festival is a bonus for us that will reach beyond the festival itself."
Shugart, who is perhaps even more widely known for his philanthropic efforts than he is for his successful business ventures, said the work his core team is doing on the fairgrounds has the potential to pay dividends that will impact the entire region.
"Just look at the opportunities the Exchange Club will have," he said. "Instead of just planning the fair and the (annual) coon hunt, they can lease the fairgrounds 10 times or more a year. And those events will bring people into the community who are going to spend their dollars here. It's a win-win for everyone involved.
"Depending, of course, on the reaction to the Throwdown, we're looking to add two or maybe even three more festivals a year, perhaps as soon as next year. I can see us having some kind of blues/jazz festival in the spring, a bluegrass/Southern rock event in the summer and a country festival in the fall. There's no reason not to take advantage of this facility."
Nichols admits that the new and improved fairgrounds have Exchange Club officials looking beyond the annual November fair and January coon hunt.
"(The improvements) will certainly give us a better, more marketable venue to rent," Nichols said. "I think the people who come to the fair (which runs Nov. 6-11 this year) and the coon hunt (Jan. 25-26) will appreciate the changes."
Shugart, meanwhile, said contract negotiations are ongoing with national acts that he expects to soon add to the festival lineup.
"Although there were a couple of minor glitches with our ticket sites, we've hopefully got those ironed out," Shugart said. "Ticket sales are going very well, and once we announce the other acts that will be part of the Throwdown, I think it's going to be Katy bar the door."
Among the first acts announced for the festival are Drive-By Truckers, the Peach Pickers (featuring Dallas Davidson and Rhett Akins), Col. Bruce Hampton, Colt Ford and Corey Smith. Tickets, which are $45 for single days and $85 for a weekend pass, are available at www.ticketalternative.com or www.georgiathrowdown.com.