Batesville has gone to the dogs
By Billy Davis
An Ohio coon hunter named Keith said he rolled into Batesville, before the sun came up Thursday morning, with two friends, three dogs, and high hopes.
There’s a lot of that going around this weekend — friends, dogs and hope — at the Batesville Civic Center.
There’s also a lot of hope that coon dog lovers and their families, many setting foot in Mississippi for the first time, will learn why the state is called the “South’s warmest welcome.”
The United Kennel Club announced last July it had chosen Batesville and its civic center as the new location for its Winter Class. The three-day event draws coon hunters and dog fanciers to its night hunts and its bench show, and the UKC said as many as 10,000 people attended events in the past.
Albany, Georgia was home to the Classic for 25 continuous years, and the message boards at the UKC Web site immediately lit up with hunters unhappy at the changing venue. Other hunters, meanwhile, suggested that moving the hunt farther west would draw more hunters from west of the Mississippi and other regions.
UKC officials said that was the goal all along: to keep the event in the South but shift it westward.
But Albany boasts a population of 80,000, while Batesville has one-tenth that number, and locals are crossing their fingers that our weekend company will enjoy their brief stay in their temporary home.
“We need to do everything we can to make them feel welcome,” Sonny Simmons, the Panola Partnership CEO, said Thursday as he erected a welcome booth inside the main entrance of the Civic Center.
Simmons is typically chasing after new industries for the Partnership, but the county organization serves as the chamber of commerce, too, so he is wearing a different hat during the weekend.
Simmons said Winter Classic attendees will be assisted by Partnership staff, the red-coated Ambassadors, and members of the Young Professionals.
Simmons told the Mississippi Business Journal recently that the Winter Classic brought more than $2 million in revenue into Albany during the weekend.
While Simmons and his staff were readying for the crowd, Lynn Dover Ray and husband Eddie were shoveling popcorn and fetching bottled water for attendees who were lining up at their concession stand.
The husband and wife hold the concession contract at the Civic Center, and Lynn Ray said she has hired extra part-time help, and ordered extra food and drink, for the long weekend.
“I’ve ordered a little bit of everything,” she said.
She said the concession stand is extending its hours to serve an early-morning breakfast to hunters, and the Rays are selling plate lunches Friday and Saturday for the crowd.
“I hope people understand how big this is for Batesville,” said Batesville resident Cole Flint, who is wearing several hats during the weekend, too.
Flint works for his family’s famous hardware store in Downtown Batesville, one of many businesses that hope to draw Winter Classic attendees into their doors during the weekend.
Flint, a county supervisor, also plans to serve as a guide for the night hunts. When he learned about the Classic, he said he lined up other guides for hunters and called landowners to ask to use their land.
“When I started talking to some landowners, they had no idea this was going on,” Flint said. “That got me thinking that people aren’t aware this event is in our town. They need to be aware.”
Keith, the Ohio hunter, said he had walked the civic center grounds and was happy so far.
“I think it’s going to accommodate us pretty well,” he said. “The people seem really nice.”
He also said he expects high scoring on the coon hunts. The land around Albany was swampy and made the timed hunts challenging, but he expects the terrain of North Mississippi will offer good hunts.
Civic Center director Roy Hyde said the facility will get feedback about the weekend from the UKC, which is provided an after-event survey.
He expects the attendees will share their thoughts with the UKC, which will pass those opinions on to the City of Batesville.
There’s also those message boards. Coon hunters apparently know their way around a keyboard, too.