The Winston-Salem City Council will vote Monday on whether to change the name of the Dixie Classic Fair, but not on what the possible new name would be.
The city council’s general government committee voted unanimously Tuesday evening to schedule the vote, in an effort to put the contentious issue to rest without the lengthy, expensive process of hiring of a consultant.
“This is a decision the council should make,” said North Ward Council Member D.D. Adams, who chairs the general government committee. “It is not difficult. It is either yes or no. We have kicked this can long enough. The people look for us to make a decision. I want us to decide publicly whether to change the name or not.”
There was no suggestion Tuesday of allowing any more public comment on an issue that has drawn thousands of responses over social media, emails and telephone calls.
Public input could be allowed later, however, since a decision to change the name would be followed by another motion directing city staffers to come up with a procedure for picking the new name.
South Ward Council Member John Larson said the fair name can be changed without wading into the controversies that have swirled around the origin and meaning of the word Dixie.
“The removal of the name will not change the Southern lexicon,” South Ward Council Member John Larson said, adding that there will still be “Dixie Chicks, Dixie cups ... and Dixieland music.” Larson said the city council should not “demonize the word Dixie.”
A push to change the name of the fair started April 9, when a group of residents came to the general government committee to say that the word Dixie was offensive because it has connotations of the Old South and slavery.
That kicked off months of controversy and heated exchanges both online and in a public forum the city held to get feedback. The result of all the input was a massive majority in favor of keeping the name. The surveys were not scientific polls but allowed residents and non-residents to voice their views.
Adams, who has called for changing the name of the fair, said she well remembers having to go to what was called the “colored fair,” during the segregation era when whites and blacks attended separate fairs.
“I don’t know what it is about us not wanting to move on and change,” Adams said. “I don’t think Dixie defines who Winston-Salem is, or the people of Winston-Salem, or the history. I don’t mind saying it publicly: I will support changing the name.”
The fair was called the Fair of Winston-Salem when the name was changed to the Dixie Classic Fair in 1956. Adams pointed out that since the 1956 name change was done without input from the public or the council, the city can change the name again at its own discretion.
One question that wasn’t decided by the committee on Tuesday was when a new name, if approved Monday night, would actually go into effect. Originally, the thought was to change the name in 2020, since it was considered too close to the 2019 fair to arrange marketing and advertising.
When the idea of a consultant was brought up, the thinking was that the new name would go into effect in 2021. Tuesday’s committee action made no mention of a date.
At one point in the discussion, Southwest Ward Council Member Dan Besse tried to get the committee to formally support a name change and send that recommendation to the full council, leaving the choice of a new name for later consideration. Besse got no second to that motion.
West Ward Council Member Robert Clark suggested that city staffers poll the council informally about their name preferences, then come back with a recommendation based on that.
“We are making it harder than it needs to be,” Clark said. He objected to spending money on the decision.
Clark said people come to the fair because of the rides and the food, not because of what the fair is called. Rain is the biggest factor affecting attendance, he said.
Northwest Ward Council Member Jeff MacIntosh, a native of New Jersey, pointed out that the city has never actually voted to change the name of the fair, despite widespread public perception that it had.
“Not having been born here, I have no particular attachment to the name Dixie,” MacIntosh said. “I am name-agnostic.”
He said most of the feedback he has received has been to not change the name, but “if the full council votes to do it, I am happy to go along.”
Committee members agreed the process for looking at the name has been flawed. Tossing the decision to appointed citizen panels such as the Fair Planning Committee and Public Assembly Facilities Commission only puts people “on a hot seat that they didn’t volunteer for,” as Besse put it.
The discussion on the general government committee started with a proposed resolution authorizing a search for a “fair name” consultant who would do a full-blown branding study, including focus groups and market studies, and estimated to cost about $60,000.
The resolution went nowhere as council members panned the idea of hiring a consultant.
East Ward Council Member Annette Scippio said the city has higher-priority concerns than the name of the fair. She pointed to several efforts underway to figure out better ways to promote the city’s brand.
“I have felt that the fair renaming should not be the issue we focus on,” Scippio said. “I am more concerned about how residents see the city ... and how the city is marketed.”
She said the fair name may need changing because it doesn’t fit with the other branding efforts.
But Scippio also pointed to the fair’s history of segregation, saying that history is full of “things that were offensive that we have tolerated for many, many years.”
She said she opposed drawing out a decision.
“I don’t want it to stay in committee because it means we are avoiding a decision,” Scippio said, responding to calls from some council members to delay action. “Take it to the council and see who wants to change it and who does not.”