City officials say the question is no longer whether to drop the word Dixie from the name of the Dixie Classic Fair, but what the new name will be.

In a presentation Wednesday morning that caught members of the Fair Planning Committee off guard, Assistant City Manager Ben Rowe told the panel that the Winston-Salem City Council had decided the name must change, leaving some members of the committee asking why they were meeting at all.

“We are putting a lot of energy into finding a new name rather than finding out if a majority wants a new name,” committee member Lisa Eldridge said.

Rowe presented the fair panel with what he called an aggressive timetable for changing the name: A public input meeting on May 7; a May 10 meeting by the Fair Planning Committee to recommend a new name; and after several more committee layers of approval, a decision by the Winston-Salem City Council on June 17.

The public-input session will take place on May 7 in the Bolton Home and Garden Building at the fairgrounds. The city is also taking new name suggestions through June 3 with an online survey, or people can simply telephone in their ideas.

But after prodding on Wednesday from the Fair Planning Committee, city officials said the council decision will not come until August.

The new name would not take effect until 2020, prompting committee members to question the need for speed.

Rowe told the fair committee that the survey on a new fair name will not give people the option of saying they don’t want a new name.

A group of people came to the general government committee on April 9, saying they found the name Dixie an offensive reminder of slavery in the south.

Neither the general government committee nor the city council has ever voted on changing the name or even had the idea on the agenda for discussion, but Rowe said Wednesday that city management was directed by the council to pursue the name change.

Rowe read the text of a news release the city was proposing to send out, one saying that the Fair Planning Committee would be seeking public input on a new name.

The wording of the release brought immediate objections from members of the committee, who said the release made it look like they were the ones pushing for a new name.

Although Rowe frequently talked about “transparency” in picking a new name, fair committee member Joseph Hamby said the difficulty is that “there was no vote, there was no formal process to get to this point.”

Eldridge said that she had read a lot of comments online to news articles about the proposal to change the name of the fair, and saw that “95% of them say we do not want a name change” in discussions that often got “ugly.”

“You are laying all the blame on this committee,” Eldridge said. “We should not be on this release.”

When the news release came out Wednesday afternoon, the wording had been changed to point back to the council and Mayor Allen Joines as the sources of the name-change mandate.

Council Member D.D. Adams, who chairs the general government committee that heard the request on April 9, was the only member of the council at the meeting of the fair committee. She told the group that reviewing possible new names was their role in the city’s procedure for bringing about name changes.

“Your responsibility is to create the beginning of a process that has been asked for,” Adams told the committee members. “You don’t have to agree to it. All we are asking is for you to play your part to start the process.”

Adams said that the fair committee could, if it wants to, oppose the name change, but that “the process will continue.” She noted that the city had recently moved the city’s Confederate statue, and that “since the statue came down, we haven’t heard from anybody.”

Kathleen Garber, chairing the fair committee meeting, said “the way the process is being laid out, we are eliminating an entire option.”

Rowe said that the fair committee would be hearing from opponents of a change.

“Obviously, people will show up and say we don’t think the name should change,” Rowe said. “If someone wants to get up and say we shouldn’t change the name, we are not going to go, ‘No, no, no, you can’t speak.’”

The site of the fair had been known as the Dixie Classic Fairgrounds until 2014, when the city changed the name of the site but not the name of the fair.

The new name, the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds, was chosen to promote what was left of a larger complex formerly known as the Winston-Salem Entertainment-Sports Complex. That name included Joel Coliseum, but the city sold Joel to Wake Forest University in 2013.

City Council Member James Taylor suggested changing the name of the fair in 2015, but backed off in the fact of massive opposition.

Historical research presented by the city to the fair committee showed that the name Dixie was attached to the fair in 1956, “as a culmination of the Dixie Classic Livestock Exposition and the Winston-Salem Fair.”

The write-up said the livestock exposition was “marketed and known nationally,” and that the fair name was changed from the Fair of Winston-Salem to the Dixie Classic Fair to convey its “larger regional outlook and agricultural emphasis.” The idea was “combining the prominence of the livestock exposition with the growing regional popularity of the Winston-Salem fair.”

Kim Gressley, director of the Cooperative Extension Service in Forsyth County, questioned how the people who have donated to the fair over the years will feel about the change. And she asked whether the city wants the fair to have more of a city focus.

“My staff feels that the Dixie Classic Fair has been inclusive of a larger group of people than just the city,” she said.

In a list of “five key principles” for people suggesting a new name to keep in mind, city officials say the fair should be seen as regional, agricultural and educational, and that it provides a family atmosphere and entertainment.

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wyoung@wsjournal.com 336-727-7369 @wyoungWSJ

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