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East Texas State Fair sets records as organizers attribute success to weather, programming

This year’s East Texas State Fair set several records, including largest attendance ever on two days, most student participants in Floral Cup and public speaking contests, and largest attendance at a concert, with regional Mexican band La Fiera de Ojinaga.

“It was the greatest economic impact this event has ever generated,” Fair President John Sykes said, according to a news release.

The 2019 East Texas State Fair saw the largest attendance since 2015 (the 100th anniversary event) and the third-largest attendance in history with 257,127 visitors.

Overall attendance was up 16.2% over last year, according to the news release.

While the overall attendance record (286,149 in 2007) has yet to be broken, the fair saw the largest Wednesday and the largest Sunday in the event’s history.

Anecdotally, the fair is seeing more families in attendance. “We’re seeing more strollers on the grounds than ever before,” Sykes said.

The fair’s educational competitions also saw tremendous growth. Livestock entries were up 2%, along with the record student participation in the floral cup and the public speaking contests. These contests saw students from as far away as Arkansas and Oklahoma, according to the news release.

Fair managers attributed the success of the 2019 fair to weather and programming.

The fair dodged a tropical storm that threatened the opening weekend and instead had 10 days of sunshine.

In addition, fair organizers said they have paid special attention to the level of entertainment provided over the past few years, and credit the growing reputation of first-class attractions to their recent success.

This year’s concert lineup added excitement about the fair, organizers said. The new Stonewater Stage featured the largest concerts in East Texas State Fair history, and included country superstar Aaron Watson, rock singer Bret Michaels and the aforementioned La Fiera de Ojinaga, a regional Mexican band whose 3,000-plus crowd broke the record for the largest attended concert in fair history, according to the news release.

Mayor’s Mentorship Achievement Program kicks off for the school year

John Tyler High School student Le’Kenya Mass knows what she wants for her future.

“My goal after high school is to run track in college while studying kinesiology, then later on to obtain my bachelor’s degree in culinary arts,” she said.

Now, she is trying to take the right steps to get there. And she has help through the Mayor’s Mentorship Achievement Program.

“This program will help me with those goals through filling out applications and paperwork and just making sure I am well-prepared,” Mass said. “Having someone to walk you through the process of getting ready for college is amazing.”

Mass was one of 22 students who each met with a mentor Tuesday as the latest round of the Mayor’s Mentorship Achievement Program kicked off at the Tyler ISD Career and Technology Center. The program is designed to provide guidance and direction throughout the school year for students to help prepare for their futures after high school.

“The vision of the Mayor’s Mentorship Program is to get our business and industry partners to mentor high school seniors, and to assist in making those senior year decisions that are going to be life-changing,” said Latoya Young, executive director of Tyler Area Business Education Council. “Financial aid decisions, college decisions, or just major and career choices.”

The mentors work with the students the entire year, one day a month, for about 90 minutes per session, Young said.

“Then we have a celebration at the end where the students invite their parents to help them celebrate going on to that next chapter in their life, graduation, and college, and going on to a career hopefully,” she said.

Rory Prue, Tyler Junior College’s department chair of Emergency Medical Services, has mentored with the program for three years.

“I think it’s so important that students be prepared for college,” Prue said. “Usually students know what they want to do. They know what they want to get into, but they don’t know all the little steps and nuances to be able to get into college and to know what to expect. I believe the mentorship program helps with that.”

The program is open to any student that desires to be a part, but there is a process that limits the number of applicants.

“They have to fill out a 4-page application that asks a lot of questions, and that usually pares down the number of students who actually submit,” Young said. “We ask that the counselors refer those students who have a job, and want to do something else, but don’t necessarily know exactly what they want to do in the next chapter.”

Throughout the year, the mentors can help provide guidance to the students.

“We know that in order for people to be more successful, they need some type of postsecondary credential,” Young said, “whether that’s a certification, or a bachelor’s degree, or an associate’s, a master’s or a ... (doctorate). But they have to start with having something after high school in order to make a better life for themselves. And we figure this is what is going to help them with achieving that.”

TWITTER: @Tylerpaper

Ben Taylor Fitzgerald, a real estate broker in the Tyler area for decades, dies at 94

The man who founded a real estate company in Chandler and likely brokered thousands of residential land deals in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s died Monday at the age of 94.

Ben Taylor Fitzgerald founded Ben Fitzgerald Real Estate LLC in 1958. He mostly brokered residential transactions, but helped develop Woodgate Office Park and Brookside Village later in his career.

“He gave himself a title and put it on his cards — he called himself the optimistic selling salesman — and he was extremely optimistic,” said Taylor Burns, who worked with him. Burns is the founder and former owner of Burns Commercial Properties.

“He was very big on convincing people that they should buy homes and buy real estate and he … owned lots and lots of residential property himself,” Burns said. “He loved to talk to every person he ever met and he had a lot of friends over the years.”

Ben Fitzgerald Real Estate continues under family leadership, brokering both residential and commercial transactions. In July, the company represented the buyer of a 543-acre property near Bellwood Park.

“There’s real estate school and then there’s Ben’s real estate school, and they’re two different things,” said one of his grandsons, Taylor Fitzgerald, 33, of Tyler. He is currently an agent with Ben Fitzgerald Real Estate.

“His big thing was, ‘You can always bet on Tyler,’” Taylor Fitzgerald said. “He just always said, ‘You can bet on Tyler,’ kind of meaning if you invest in real estate in Tyler, it’s a good investment.”

“He was always capable of finding a way to get a deal done,” Taylor Fitzgerald said. “The sale always started when somebody said ‘no’ or ‘it couldn’t happen.’ He always thought he could make anything happen.”

Outside of work, he sat on the board of directors for the East Texas State Fair for decades and was chairman from 1973 to 1974. He owned a ranch in Chandler and was an avid quail hunter. At one point, he owned more than 100 bird dogs.

“I’m 70 years old, and I’ve only known maybe three other people that maybe actually that came up to his standards as far as being a good person and being willing to help people,” said Scott Watson, who started working for Ben Fitzgerald Real Estate in 1981.

“But the main thing is he knew how to get along with people, and that’s what I learned from him, that that’s just the best way to do business is be nice to people and not try to take advantage of them,” he said.

Memorial services are scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Friday at Marvin United Methodist Church.

TWITTER and INSTAGRAM: @_erinmansfield

Smith County approves $1 million in spending that includes planning for new courthouse

Smith County has allocated $1 million for professional services on building projects, including a new courthouse.

The Smith County Commissioners Court approved the funding a week after County Judge Nathaniel Moran announced he would like to build a new courthouse.

Casey Murphy, the county spokeswoman, said the only companies getting funding are Project Advocates LLC of Dallas and Fitzpatrick Architects of Tyler.

Moran said last week he wants to have Project Advocates help keep costs down for the project and have Fitzpatrick Architects do the design work.

Project Advocates did project management at the request of the Commissioners Court when the county built the bond-funded wing of the Smith County Jail that opened in 2015.

Fitzpatrick Architects has a vision to reshape downtown Tyler and has worked with the county and the city to apply for a federal grant for street upgrades.

The Commissioners Court entered into contracts with both companies in July. Tuesday’s action allows more money to be used for the Smith County Courthouse project.

The contract with Fitzpatrick Architects allows the company to bill the county for the firm’s work, between $50 and $185 an hour depending on the employee.

The contract also says Smith County will reimburse the company for travel costs to visit other county courthouses; permitting costs; and postage, among other things.

The Fitzpatrick Architects contract does not require an upfront cash payment. A signed copy of the contract with Project Advocates was not available Tuesday.

Additionally, the county government has released a two-page questionnaire to solicit public feedback on the new Smith County Courthouse.

The forms can be returned to cmurphy@smith-county.com or through a portal that will be set up at www.smith-county.com.

TWITTER and INSTAGRAM: @_erinmansfield