Editorial – Expo: asset or liability?

A great deal has been written about the debacle with the Expo recently, perhaps with the media throwing gas on the smoldering fire to make it seem worse. What seemingly brought the issue to the fore was a meeting held last year in which county Administrator Danny Jordan said that the Expo was in debt to the County by some $350,000. In that meeting, Jordan was concerned that another year would see the Expo into the pockets of the county to the tune of another $350,000. That sent the press into a feeding frenzy.

Let’s get a few things straight here: the Fair and the Expo are two different things. The Fair is an event during the year, and that event actually “makes” money. I use the term in parenthesis because the accounting period for the Expo is yearly, and the Fair takes place during one week of the year. But the Fair is generally in the black (with the exception of 2011), it is the Expo during the balance of the year that loses money. Matter of fact, during the 2013 fair, the income over expenses was some $148,000. Remember, that is not profit, but a net increase during one week of the year. For the balance of the year, there are events that do not “make” money for the Expo, the net often in the minus column. Keep in mind that this is a simplification, the actual relationship is somewhat more complicated.

The balance owed to the county was reduced in 2013 by some $50,000, but not through a net increase in the profit, but by reducing expenses, such as payroll, for instance.

The Fair Board proposed reducing the Fair to a total of four days from the current six-day event during the board meeting the last of July. Evidently by reducing the days open, the expense would go down as well. A number of county fairs have reduced their “operating days” during the past couple of years, but there is strong opposition to that in Jackson County. Most of that opposition coming from the ag group, because it would cause havoc with the scheduling of the livestock auctions.

The proposal caught some of the Board short because no one knew it was coming and action was tabled until some facts were known.

Following the 2012 fair, Expo manager, Dave Koellermeier, approached the Junior Livestock Committee, to fund a project by Bruce Sorte, economist with Oregon State University, to study the economic impacts of the Expo on Jackson County. Shortly before Sorte gave a summary of the study, Smith announced his desire to shorten the Fair. This did not sit well with a number of community members, and they objected and demanded a town-hall type meeting where everyone would have a chance to express opinions.

Sorte presented his initial findings to a number of community and Board members in a meeting held at the Mace Building on August 1. While the report was preliminary, it revealed several facts about the impact to the local economy. His report showed a positive impact in the form of wages, profits to vendors and taxes to the county. One of the positive things that came out of that meeting was that community members began communicating with one another about the study and the coming Town Hall meeting.

On the following Thursday, August 8, the Town Hall meeting took place, also at the Mace Building. The meeting room was set up for 100 people, and about twice that number showed up to express feelings about the Fair and the Expo. The meeting was recorded by camera crews and MC Jim Teece, also a Board member, worked his way through the crowd to allow everyone the opportunity to speak.

Reactions to the situation were varied, but some points came through loud and clear. Many believe that the Fair Board is unresponsive to the needs of the people. Specifically, several folks believe that the board does not listen to their input and as a result, they act in opposition to what the people want.

Eagle Point resident Carole Mercer, echoing the sentiments of many, asked if the Board had a plan for the operations of the Expo. The response she received was less than cordial, leaving Mercer’s questions unanswered.

Perhaps one of the suggestions that drew response from several community members was the proposal to cut days from the fair. This suggested move was made before Bruce Sorte had opportunity to present his economic impact study, which also angered some. The Junior Livestock Committee funded the study to the tune of several thousand dollars, and to ignore not only the conclusions, but the entire study itself, drew ire from several. That study is not yet complete, but should be ready for publication shortly. While not a total answer, it should be considered a tool in making decisions affecting the facility.

Facility rentals also was on the mind of several people in attendance at the town hall meeting. Where local businesses have been able to rent certain parts of the facility, costs have risen to the point where they no longer feel they can do so and still make a reasonable return on their investment. The result is that the facility remains empty and local vendors use other facilities,often outside Jackson county.

What are the facts? The Expo owes the county money. The Fair actually pays its own way, something that Bruce Sorte says that no other county fair even comes close to doing. Count that one on the positive side. While it is true that the Expo owes money, that amount has been reduced by $50,000 during a year that the economy is bad and they did that by cutting expenses. But, the question remains, should the Expo be expected to break even or make money for the county when no other county ventures do. Some programs that come to mind are the libraries, animal control, even the sheriff’s department. Where does this concept come from?

Even if the Expo were to lose $300,000 per year, that amounts to about $1.50 per person in the county. And if the purpose of the Expo is to serve residents, is $1.50 so much to pay? Juvenile facilities cost far in excess of the Expo. One needs to look at the people who have come through agricultural or other programs using the Fair and Expo to see that these are now community leaders. What kind of results would be possible if we spent the same kind of money on youth in the ag programs as we do in juvenile? The sky would be the limit.

If you are going to make criticisms of something, you should also offer your best guess as to the solutions. Here are mine:

Further reduce the gate price to about $5 for adults. Klamath charges $3 and Josephine county $9. A lower gate price would leave some money in a patron’s pocket to spend on other things.

Keep the Fair at 6 days to allow everyone to attend and allow out of town guests to attend. This will help vendors who have so much invested in set-up and take-down to make enough profit to make the trip worthwhile. Those folks are our partners in this venture. We need to take care of them. Keeping the fair at six days also allows proper handling of livestock to give us the best return on animals. Shortening the fair will not increase profits, but will lessen incomes and not reduce expense that much.

The Fair Board must do two things. They must develop a plan for success and they must cpommunicate. The Board represents the community, which is the people they serve. The community may have some really good ideas and even if they don’t, they deserve the ear of a responsive board. The Board also needs to find themselves on the same page; they currently don’t even seem to be in the same book.

Fully develop the facilities; make use of the remaining 200 acres of property owned by the county. There are many great ideas floating around for attractions that would draw a crowd to the facility. Many folks spoke during the town hall meeting about the old Smokey Playhouse kids used since built at the current fairgrounds. That disappeared when the amphitheater came into being, but there is ground enough for another such venue that would grab and hold the attention of the younger group.

There are several acres of water in the ponds on the property. A water-based entertainment could be a big draw that could extend well into the year and return money for the facility. Finding enterprise that would partner with the Expo to develop those attractions would be huge. Bass fishing tournaments are huge draws in other parts of the country, why not Jackson County?

Additional parking is needed and property is available for parking on the east side of Bear Creek. Adequate access is also needed so parking lots can be filled and emptied quickly.

Reader boards at the north and south of the facility should be flashing events continuously during the course of the year. The Expo needs to encourage local businesses to partner with them on these signs. Events can be flashed on screen, alternated with event sponsor messages. Major buildings can be painted with murals of major events, such as bull riding, horse events and the like. And the IT department can spend time online to publicize events to an entertainment-hungry public through social media.

The largest piece of the puzzle may be the easiest—or the most difficult—to accomplish: that is for Jackson County and the people of the county to look upon the Expo as an asset, not a liability. If it is perceived as nothing more than a drain on the accounts, it will remain just that. If we look on it as the best facility of its kind anywhere in the state and treat it as such, we can all benefit from what it brings to our county.

RM

 

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