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Columbia Business Monthly

Under the Big Top

Jun 01, 2017 09:39PM ● By Makayla Gay

By Teowonna Clifton

Photography ©2017 Brian Dressler /

As of Jan. 1, 2018, the South Carolina State Fair will be under new management. That’s when general manager Gary Goodman will turn the reins over to Nancy Smith, who currently serves as assistant general manager.

When most people go to the fair, they don’t think about what it takes to pull off a 12-day event that entertains, feed, and engages nearly 500,000 people. When Smith joined the fair almost 35 years ago, she certainly didn’t. As Goodman retires and she prepares to step into his shoes, she is fully aware.

“The fair lasts only 12 days but it takes great a deal of preparation,” Smith says. “I got my start in the fair industry by taking a vacation from my real job to work in the home and craft department a few days before the fair.”

Before the fair opens, display items have to be received, sorted and judged. The entire building has to be readied to beautifully display the entries. Initially, Smith was a member of the team who made that transformation. A few years later, she became superintendent of the team.

In 2000, Smith accepted a full-time position with the fair. She booked entertainment and worked all the exhibits. She also worked with the superintendents over the other departments. As she advanced through the organization, she learned the ins and outs of marketing, advertising and the scholarship program. In 2007, she was promoted to assistant general manager, where she supported Goodman and gained the knowledge and experience needed to eventually assume his position.

As general manager, Smith will be overseeing the entire fair and fairground operations. That includes the off-season.

“The fair is really three segments,” Smith says. “What most people think of is the fair, which is our big event. But there is also the facility rentals.”

The fairgrounds are rented out several times a year for events like the Craftsmen’s Christmas Classic, Carolina Classic Home & Garden Show, and the Food Truck Festival, which is one of the latest additions. The third segment is USC football parking. In January, Smith will be responsible for everything that goes on over the fairgrounds.

Smith says she is honored to be a part of “South Carolina’s best party.” She’s looking forward to bringing more great things to the state fair, but the one thing she will never change is the fair’s emphasis on agriculture, which is where its roots lie.

“Agriculture is what we are all about,” she says. “We are constantly striving to make that real in everyone’s mind. That is getting a little harder to do day-by-day because some of the younger generations that are coming up may not have had the opportunity to touch an animal, or know where their milk or corn comes from. So that is something that we will always strive to keep in the forefront.”

As technology advances, Smith hopes to continue to make the fair registration and entrance processes easier for everyone. Recently adopted practices like online competitive entries, entry guides, and ticketing are all designed to make it easier for people to get into the fair and have a more pleasant experience.

One of the most common misconceptions about the fair is that it is state supported. Smith wants to make sure everyone is aware that the South Carolina State Fair is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that provides scholarships to South Carolina students. In fact, the organization recently sent notifications to 50 scholarship recipients. It is awarding $300,000 in scholarships to graduating seniors to attend in-state schools and universities.

“One thing I’d like to get across to folks is how much we appreciate them coming to the fair,” Smith says. “We want them to feel good about coming because they truly are making a difference in S.C.’s future. We give back to the community.”

As Smith prepares to take the leading role, she is cognizant of the groundwork that has been laid for her. She is complimentary of the staff, the board, and the leadership that Goodman has provided. The most important thing that she’s learned from Goodman is teamwork.

“When you think about putting on the largest event in S.C., we are a little bit different,” she says. “We only have 12 days in which to make it or break it. Teamwork is very important. No one is an island to himself. The manager of the fair can’t do it by himself or herself. The person in charge of livestock can’t do it by himself. It truly takes a team effort to do it and do it well.”

In 2019, the South Carolina State Fair will be celebrating its 150th year as being a state fair. Smith recognizes the impact the fair has on the community and the state, and will work to make the milestone grand.

“We are like a tradition for people that come here and have great memories,” she says. “It is something that families have been doing for years and years. We also have an opportunity to get the agricultural aspect exposure to the public who may not know about it. Sometimes, that can get lost in the lights or the midway and everything else that goes on. But those types of impact are really immeasurable.”

As the new incoming general manager, Smith she is committed to doing her part to keep creating those memories.