Douglas County fares better with fair than Josephine County

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) Steve Swearingen and Al Westhoff can look back fondly to the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Josephine County Fairgrounds still brought home the bacon.

In 1988, the year before Westhoff began a 17-year-stint as fair manager, a record 96,000 people attended the five-day fair, lured by Monster Trucks and Johnny Cash.

In 1987, bettors laid down a record $125,000 per day at horse races at the fairgrounds from Memorial Day weekend to July 4.

Those were the good old days.

Last year's five-day fair netted a profit of just $5,000, a tiny fraction of its typical haul. Horse racing, on life support for more than a decade, lost more than $20,000 for the second straight year. Deteriorating infrastructure, the bad economy, sub-par entertainment acts and bad management have all been blamed for the fairgrounds' current $300,000 deficit.

"I look at it with some frustration because I invested a lot of time over the years," said Swearingen, member of the fair board from 1980 to 2000 and again in 2006. "When Al was here, a lot of repairs got done. He was busy getting grants to put new roofs on, hustling corporations to redo things. We had some money from the city."

Westhoff said that, under his guidance, the annual fair always made a profit of at least $100,000. Jackie McBee, manager from 2006 through 2010, said profits during her tenure were always at least $140,000.

Prior to the 2012 debacle, the 2011 fair made a profit of $102,000, in spite of poor attendance that year. "Our fair always made big money," said Westhoff, now manager of the Yamhill County Fair in McMinnville. "We never lost money on horse racing. When I first got there, we had to turn away horses."

Then, in 1992, came the Oregon Lottery's video poker machines and Seven Feathers Casino in Canyonville.

By 1996, horse racing had a "handle" (total wagers) of about $60,000 a day, and in 2012 it had shriveled to $30,000 per race day.

Horse racing and the five-day fair are the top two moneymakers for the 41-acre property, so when both faltered last year, it was devastating.

In October, the deficit soared to $300,000, and new Manager Mary Groves cut the 2013 fair from five days to four. She will stage this year's fair on a budget of $175,000 to $200,000, instead of the normal $275,000.

The county, which quit providing general fund support seven years ago, has pledged $25,000 for repairs and will take over maintenance, Groves said. A pet fair has been planned for May 18 to raise money, and other fundraisers are in the works.

The trend has pointed down for more than 20 years, and the fairgrounds faced closure in 2007 before making up a $100,000 deficit. More recently, the fairgrounds have been in the red for 30 of the last 38 months. The deficit hit $200,000 in 2011 for the first time, before growing worse in 2012.

"It's been piling on for 25 years," said Swearingen. "You've got a public facility that was never built to be a profit center. That's not what the fairgrounds was about when that place was built.

"Some of the buildings are 75, 80 years old."

"There's been a lot of talk among fair folks about how did we get to minus $300,000," said Arthur O'Hare, Josephine County controller. "We've been going negative for years."

"This is the worst," he said. "It's not just a Wes Brown phenomenon It's been occurring over time."

Brown was fair manager in 2011 and 2012, following McBee. Groves replaced Brown.

During Brown's two years, the fairgrounds endured some turmoil. McBee said she can't fathom the fair costing $275,000 last year with the huge cut in the entertainment budget.

Brown was criticized for charging entrance fees for exhibitors, ending shuttle bus service, switching horse racing from 1 to 4 p.m. and several other unpopular moves.

"People I know who exhibited for 50 years said they weren't coming to the fair," Swearingen said.

McBee said that when county officials tightened scrutiny and control of the fairgrounds in 2006, they hurt the bottom line.

"I got all of our Internet service donated through Charter so we didn't have an I.T. fee, and we might have spent $200 a year for computers," she said. "We didn't pay I.T., we didn't pay building and maintenance, the treasurer, and now they're paying all that."

McBee said she hired a landscaping person and two maintenance people through a temp service, before the county forced her to hire them through the county.

"It cost more, big time," she said.

Westhoff said when he was here for horse racing legend Don Jackson's funeral in the fall, he was shocked at the condition of the fairgrounds.

"Ten days before the fair, I got up every morning and hosed down every building," Westhoff said. "I knew exactly what needed to be painted, what needed to be fixed."

The main sign out front has been broken for much of the last two years and still doesn't work, Groves said. The county is still in litigation with Pepsi, which supplied the sign, over repair costs.

About 70 miles up the road, the Douglas County Fairgrounds in Roseburg has fared far better with similar demographics and fair attendance of about 70,000 for five days, which is considered a poor turnout here.

Fair Director Harold Phillips said he continues to break even.

The Douglas County Fairgrounds annual budget of $2 million is twice the size of Josephine County's, and they spend $250,000 for fair entertainment, more than four times Josephine County's budget. The caliber of entertainment has declined here from the days of the Beach Boys and Rascal Flatts in 2003 and Martina McBride in 1999.

Douglas County on Thursday announced its 2013 lineup of Dwight Yoakam, Clay Walker, Three Doors Down and Whitesnake.

Phillips said he hustles $80,000 in sponsorships for the fair alone. A summary of revenue and expenses for the 2012 Josephine County Fair doesn't indicate sponsorships, but shows donations of $12,000 and $33,000 for advertising expenses.

"I market my fair," Phillips said. "I go up as far as Albany. At one concert here, over 52 percent of the people who bought seats were from out of the county."

Douglas County also benefits from an asphalt car racing track, an amphitheater next to the South Umpqua River, a Christmas craft fair that brings in 12,000 people in three days, a February sportsman show with another 12,000 visitors and a large poker tournament. The food service is all done in-house. It's still tough to make it work.

"It's a struggle every year," Phillips said. "Two years ago, we had to lay off three good, loyal employees to make our budget."

Douglas County also averages 1,300 event-days per year, a figure Westhoff said he used to do in Josephine County. Those are the AA meetings, weddings, computer clubs, Weight Watchers, reunions, horse events, gun shows, home shows and the like.

Last year, Josephine County did 372, based on its online calendar, but Groves said she's shooting for improvement. So far, the first four months of 2013 have 180 event-days planned compared to 130 events over the same span last year.

A mud bog event in January netted at least $3,500, and Groves said she wants to put on another one.

Swearingen got a tad sentimental about the tough times with the fairgrounds.

"Maybe fairs are going the way of the Elks Club and other fraternal organizations, because we're not as rural as we used to be. I think it's neat to have roots. I always looked at walking down the midway at the fair every year as the time to see people I hadn't seen all year.

"It's like a big front porch for the community."

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.