What we think: The county fair needs some old ideas

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By The Staff

The Shelby County Fair A&M Board is feeling a pinch after its recent Shelby County Fair started reasonably well and then lost all momentum in a deluge of rainstorms and heat. Attendance flagged, and the economic balance of the event has become more fragile than had been expected.

But the deteriorating attendance at the 2009 fair cannot solely be placed at the feet of climatology and public apathy.

The fair simply has gotten too expensive for the average family.

We are certain that this debate comes up at board meetings and private discussions. The supply/demand economics of any event – especially when there are vendors who must make their living off of this – are fragile, and today’s economic issues don’t help this dichotomy.

But when a family of four can’t attend a night at the Shelby County Fair, enter the grounds, ride rides, play some games, dine at the booths and perhaps purchase a souvenir for less than $100, then we believe the cost structure is beyond reasonable and even equitable.

We are not talking about a national amusement chain, professional sports or even touring theater. We are talking about the cost to ride the merry-go-round, shoot a basketball or throw a dart, eat a hotdog or two, gulp a soda and indulge in a funnel cake.

If your family is growing and your children are active, that expense can rise to a daunting figure, surpassing a week’s fuel cost and approaching the grocery bill.

Therefore we make these hard but well-intentioned suggestions to bring down those costs and return the fair as a must-attend event:

§       Let’s restructure the gate fee, keep it consistent and make admission reasonable and with reward. This is an event for county residents, and a high “toll” to traverse their grounds seems inappropriate. If you want to charge more for visitors from outside the county, no problem.

§       To make that admission more valuable, let’s bring in featured entertainment, such as local or regional bands, perhaps even a small-scale national star, to provide some big-draw impact on one night or two. Maybe we even could find someone with a Shelby connection – there are several entertainers who would be great – and make that a tradition. And let’s make those concerts free for the price of admission.

§       Let’s discount the ride tickets by selling multiday bracelets for significantly less money to entice more in-and-out ride-hopping for families. As ride tickets now work, the price is too high, and the use is too limited.

§       Let’s sell our hometown “stars” of the fair – the tractor pulls, the horse shows and the pageants – by making them more than scheduled events. Use prior winners in sales efforts.

§       And to that end, let’s keep open longer the exhibits in Floral Hall so that more attendants can enjoy the diligence and creativity of our neighbors. It’s one of the best parts of the State Fair. This may help expand the list of contestants, too.

§       Let’s create board positions for qualified high school students (as does the school board) to build input and trust among teenagers.  They are a key and dwindling audience for the fair.

§       And, finally, let’s review the schedule to reduce expenses. How about an 8-day run rather than 10? Let the horses and the tractors have their days but limit the number overall.

We realize that all of these issues probably have been drug up and down the tractor-pull course, but we also believe that, despite new perspectives and broader ideas, that everything old is new again.

Significant change may be affected simply by turning back the calendar.

A century-and-a-half of tradition is worth sustaining and reinforcing, and we fear the consequences of delaying it.