By Ralph McKechnie
Of the Independent
Anyone who happened to visit the Expo during the Jackson County Fair, was greeted by less than average crowds, during the July 16-21 event. The Fair Board, the governing body of the organization is somewhat at a loss for the reason for the low attendance. In meeting on July 25, they questioned what happened without coming up with definite answers.
As most know, Jackson County has budget problems of its own, and the commissioners are not in a receptive mood, especially when it comes to shortfalls. For the past few years, the Expo has been running in the red, and the county is reluctant to want to loan it any more funds to cover shortfalls. The Fair Board is charged with the unenviable task of making certain that doesn’t happen. It’s the “how” that is up in the air.
Discussion concerning the length of the fair (six days) was one hot topic during their meeting last week. It was noted that around the state, several counties have shortened the duration of their annual celebrations. It was also noted that none had lengthened their annual events. This board is reluctant to make any changes that affect the Fair’s length without more information to hopefully make better decisions about that issue. They feel that having at least some data to crunch will give them more certainty that any decision they make will be the correct one.
During the meeting, it was noted that the actual paid admission for 2013 was just north of 19,000, many thousands shy of the figures reported just a few years ago. Several board members asked the reasons and speaking on behalf of the public, Gary Bedell said that people were mad, though he did not list the reasons for their angry feelings. He requested that the Board hold meetings during the evening hours to give the public a chance to attend and offer their thoughts on the fair. The meetings are currently scheduled at the lunch hour during the work week.
The low attendance figures hurt the relationship between vendors and the fairgrounds. Vendors place a deposit against earnings when they book space for their particular booth. This insures that the fairgrounds receives at least their space rental, but does not guarantee any additional funds when vendors don’t sell a certain amount. Those who do well, will pay the fairgrounds a percentage of gross receipts over and above the deposit amount. In 2013, some of the old reliable vendors did well, others did not make their goal and they left disappointed. Those vendors will think twice in the future about renting space during a Jackson County Fair.
Management decided not to continue the contract with the company providing the carnival equipment because they feel the company did not live up to their agreement. They were to bring two Ferris wheels, and brought none. The Ferris wheels help attract those passing by on the freeway.
The heat was also quite intense this year; while not setting records, at times it was stifling. Summertime heat is a given at the fair. It seems unlikely that this heat could have affected attendance as much as numbers indicate.
One venue that was and always is up is the attendance at the junior livestock events. it is also an area where many come through the gates and are not counted as paid attendance. The auctions were well attended, and swine prices were holding up well, through the Wednesday auction. The actual number of entrants was down for both swine and beef.
At the end of the reporting period, the Expo owed Jackson County some $305,000, which is a sum not to be exceeded by the same reporting period next year. The only positive note about that figure is that there is a beginning balance in the books at the Expo for this year. That will give them more flexibility and perhaps a bit of breathing room throughout the year.
The Board has accepted the challenge to make it all happen, and that is not an easy task. They are currently operating with a plan that Manager, Dave Koellermeier says they have not had since his employment began there just a few short years ago. He says the plan is a roadmap that was normally not formalized until late in the year—at least during prior years.
There are no simple solutions to the problems the Jackson County Fair faces. It will take a great deal of work to right the ship, and the members of the board must be up to the challenges. There is an element that is unpredictable, and that is the economy. Jackson County and southern Oregon have been hit hard and recovery has been slow. What that factor plays in the future of the county fair will remain to be seen.
The county fair is an institution that should continue well into the future. It is our connection with the past, our connection to agriculture and a connection to local entertainment. A great deal is at stake here. Let’s hope those involved are up to the challenge.