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Not your grandfather’s Tri-County Fair

August 20, 2012

The 2012 Tri-County Fair officially comes to an end with the Gene Crosby Trophy Race, or last-man-standing Hooligan heat, leaving Monday for drivers, vehicles and tri-county residents to recuperate. Photo by Mike Gervais

This year’s Tri-County Fair organizers have made lemonade from the several hundred thousand lemons handed down by the State of California.
Faced with a growing funding gap roughly equivalent to what it spends every year to put on an end-of-summer party for Eastern Sierra residents and visitors, the Tri-County Fair was faced with an all-too common choice: adapt or die.
As announced earlier this year, $200,000 in state funding for the Tri-County Fair has been cut from California’s budget with an additional $100,000 a year, on average, in capital improvements also eliminated. The Fair costs roughly $200,000 to put on.
Fairgrounds CEO Jim Tatum and his Board of Directors have chosen to adapt.
And, to their relief, that lemonade is tasting pretty good.
According to Tatum, they have been able to cut costs without sacrificing quality; have kept the popular and traditional events and attractions in tact or improved upon them (six of the 10 food booths are still local); and even been able to bring in new features.
Most importantly, he noted, the Fairgrounds was careful not to pass any of the financial burden onto attendees.
“There are two things we really pride ourselves in – providing good old fashioned family entertainment and trying to offer something that will appeal to everyone,” Tatum said, pointing out that once people have paid the Fair admission, most of the entertainment is provided free. “There are free concerts every day, a free circus, free petting zoo, Discovering Science exhibit, and more. We’re real lucky to have a lot of community support as far as sponsors go, so we can bring in such fantastic entertainment.”
That’s not to say organizers didn’t have to make some major changes in order to bring that fantastic entertainment to the local masses.
The most noticeable of these changes is the elimination of Monday from the lineup, whittled to Thursday, Aug. 30 to Sunday, Sept. 2.
“We’ve considered eliminating Monday in the past,” Tatum said.
The Fairgrounds pays to bring in the rough stock rodeo, circus, rides, etc., and, in turn, makes its money on ticket sales as well as sponsorships and concession spaces Events like Fairs “are driven by multiple visits,” Tatum explained, and by Monday, those visits seem to have petered out.
The “biggest day” for the Tri-County Fair has always been Sunday, when the Bishop Volunteer Fire Department hosts its Destruction Derby, Tatum said, and an estimated 7,000-8,000 people buy tickets to the Fair.
After the derby, “we leave here at 1 in the morning and come back to open up for Monday and nobody’s here,” Tatum said.
“Five days (of the Fair) is probably too much,” he added.
According to Tatum, while the decision to cut Monday was easy from an attendance and financial standpoint, organizers nevertheless had concerns.
“Our only reservation was how this would impact the service industry workers in Mammoth, because Monday is their only day off,” he explained. “But we hope they can maybe make it to one of the other days.”
The other major change – and cost-cutter – is the absence of a traditional concert on Friday night, whether a country act or one of the nostalgic rock bands that have proven popular with Fair attendees.
Looking at the books, this was again another relatively easy decision for organizers.
According to Tatum, in his tenure with the Tri-County Fairgrounds, he’s seen the Fair concert “maybe generate revenue one time” out of 17 or 18 concerts. Ironically, he pointed out, that concert was headlined by Eddie Money.
Depending on the entertainer, each concert costs $30,000-$40,000. The acts have been good, Tatum said, but the production costs are much higher than country bands – which aren’t as popular with Fair attendees.
“Last year, Blue Öyster Cult put on a great show, but we lost our butts (financially),” Tatum said. There are just fewer and fewer nostalgic rock bands the Fair can afford, he said.
And Tatum, for one, wasn’t interested in raising the ticket prices in 2012.
“I was never comfortable with the price we had to charge for the concert,” he said.
The solution for this year’s Fair seems to be more of that lemonade: essentially a win-win situation for Fairgoers and the Tri-County Fairgrounds – with some extra win thrown in for local musicians and singers.
“A Battle of the Bands is the resurrection of an old idea,” Tatum said, “and so far we’ve gotten a neat response.”
About 6-8 local acts – from Christian rock to heavy metal – signed up earlier this year to compete in the Fair’s first-ever, homegrown music competition.
According to Tatum, each band will get 20-30 minutes of stage time, for a show anticipated to last about three hours.
Tatum said the show will be fairly no-frills; don’t expect any big production numbers, fancy lighting or smoke machines – just great music and an enthusiastic crowd.
The Battle of the Bands will be judged not by a panel of music-lovers or industry professionals but by a decibel meter measuring crowd applause. In other words – and in keeping with almost every Battle of the Bands competition ever staged – the act that gets the loudest reaction from the crowd, wins.
“We understand this could turn out to be a popularity contest but no cash prize is involved and the bands are comfortable with that,” Tatum said, explaining the exchange for many of these acts is the opportunity to perform “for the biggest audience they’ll ever have.”
Tatum added that ticket prices have been lowered to encourage more attendance.
A more behind-the-scenes cost-savings step was giving Fair exhibitors the option this year of donating their premiums back to the Fairgrounds.
According to Tatum, the Fair issues about $11,000 in premium checks to thousands of exhibitors each year for their winning vegetables, photographs, muffins, flower arrangements and so on. Many of the checks are for $2 or $3 and never cashed.
Exhibitor forms came with a box to check so that the exhibitors who aren’t interested in the money can essentially tell the Fair not to even bother cutting the check.
More radical changes may be necessary in 2013. Tatum and his board will begin figuring out their strategy this fall.
In 2011, the cost to keep the Fairgrounds alive and well was $900,000. This year, the grounds are operating on $800,000 in revenues; by 2013, those revenues will be down to $700,000.
This year, the emphasis was on absorbing that $100,000 by decreasing costs and increasing revenues across the board, the same strategies families and businesses have been using through the last few years of recession.
Tatum’s approach to managing the Fairgrounds is to allow new activities or organizations to rent space at a reasonable rate giving them an opportunity to succeed and absorbing part of the risk. Examples of Tatum’s strategy are evident at the Fairgrounds. The Eastern Sierra Roller Hockey League started in 1993 and has grown in participation each year. Most recently, the Owensville RC Club has a space with miniature race tracks built out of unused Fairgrounds space on U.S. 395.
Tatum anticipates that the Agriculture districts, the governing boards for fairgrounds, will become a thing of the past, but that the Fair will be around for a long time – good news considering studies have shown the economic impact of fairs is measured in the millions.

(Register Correspondent Marilyn Blake Philip contributed to this story.)

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