The Miss Georgia pageant has been held in Columbus for 74 years. The future of the 75th one is in serious doubt.
A legal battle between the Miss America Organization and the former Miss Georgia board has left the city of Columbus and the RiverCenter for Performing Arts in limbo.
The event also produces an annual economic impact on local hotels, restaurants, and stores that exceed $250,000, said Peter Bowden, president and CEO of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau.
But it is more than the money. It’s the history, said Mayor Skip Henderson.
“From my perspective the Miss America pageant, and specifically the Miss Georgia pageant and Columbus, Ga., — our fabrics are interwoven,” Henderson said. “This office’s objective is to make sure that continues. I am told we have an opportunity to meet with the people who are in charge now with the Miss Georgia pageant. And we are looking forward to trying to figure out how we make it happen.”
Late last year, the former Miss Georgia Board of Directors was removed by the Miss America Organization and its board led by former television commentator and Miss America Gretchen Carlson. The state board led by Mansfield Bias of Columbus has been replaced by an organization led by Trina Pruitt, an elementary school teacher in Troup County.
A call to Pruitt has not been returned. Bias has referred all questions to his attorney, Emily C. Ward, Chilivis, Cochran, Larkins & Bever LLP of Atlanta.
The former Miss Georgia board has filed a lawsuit in New Jersey against the Miss America Organization. The local organization, along with boards from four other states in a similar situation, asked the judge for an injunction against Miss America to allow them to put on state pageants as planned.
The judge did not grant the temporary restraining order but allowed the suit to continue by failing to dismiss it as the Miss America Organization was asking.
“On Jan. 25, 2019, the Court heard oral arguments from all parties to the lawsuit regarding the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order prohibiting MAO from awarding the license to MGSC and other replacement organizations across the country,” Ward said in a statement on Monday. “Somewhat unsurprisingly given the high legal bar required for a temporary restraining order to be issued, the judge denied the plaintiffs’ request. Importantly, the Court also rejected MAO’s argument that Plaintiffs did not have the right to sue, meaning the case continues to move forward.”
But that only further complicates the plans for the 75th-anniversary pageant in Columbus.
“At the January hearing, the judge encouraged the parties to mediate their issues. Consequently, MGPC is actively engaged in discussions with MAO in an attempt to find some common ground and help the Miss Georgia Pageant occur in Columbus with the pomp and circumstance the 75th anniversary deserves,” Ward said.
The RiverCenter is continuing to hold the June dates for the pageant, Executive Director Norm Easterbrook said. Bias and the former state board released the dates last month after the former board lost the Miss Georgia license. The RiverCenter has continued to hold the dates as a courtesy to the new board, Easterbrook said.
There is currently no signed agreement with the new board, Easterbrook said. Conversations with the new board are ongoing, Easterbrook said.
The RiverCenter is perfect for the pageant, Henderson said.
“You are not going to find a better facility that would honor and do justice to that type of event than you find here at the RiverCenter,” Henderson said.
The city is working to keep the event and is moving forward in anticipation of hosting it, Bowden said.
“We are in the process of business as usual for the 2019 pageant,” Bowden said. “There is some discussion about whether or not it is going to take place. But as far as 2019 is concerned, we are moving forward as if the pageant is still going to occur as it has the last 70-plus years.”
Losing the pageant would be a huge blow to the city, Bowden said.
“Miss Georgia is a long-time tradition for Columbus,” Bowden said. “Over the years there has been this partnership, relationship that has developed and honed. Our feeling is it’s important that we earned that business year after year.”
The pageant is still scheduled for June 15.