County fair’s future imperiled by red ink
by Sam Matthews
Sep 13, 2013 | 1851 views | 0 0 comments | 38 38 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Nanette Martin is completing 20 years as a member of the San Joaquin County Fair’s board of directors. She is not seeking reappointment as her term ends in December.  Sam Matthews/Tracy Press
Nanette Martin is completing 20 years as a member of the San Joaquin County Fair’s board of directors. She is not seeking reappointment as her term ends in December. Sam Matthews/Tracy Press
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Nanette Martin will soon end a 20-year tenure as a member of the San Joaquin County Fair’s board of directors. But before she retires from the board as its longest-serving member at the end of the year, she wants to make sure the fair is alive and well — and has a future.

The Tracy agribusiness woman — a partner with her son, Phil, in Martin Farms — is, like others involved in the fair, concerned that the fair may have to end unless it deals effectively with attendance and financial challenges.

Decreasing attendance, reduced gate revenue and declining financial support from the state are combining to create the specter that closing the fair is no idle threat, but a real possibility.

“We don’t want to be the first county fair in California to go out of business, but the possibility is very real unless we take some bold action,” Nanette said.

As the board chairwoman and longest-serving board member, Nanette will be one of the leaders of a community meeting called by the fair board for Monday, Sept. 23.

“We can’t survive unless all of San Joaquin County is behind us,” she said. “We need a call for action, and the Sept. 23 meeting needs to be a start in that direction.”

The meeting will be from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at the Winners Gaming and Sports Emporium on the fairgrounds at 1658 S. South Airport Way in Stockton.

Nanette said the fair board wants to hear any and all suggestions of how concrete plans to improve fair operations — and its bottom line — can be in place by next year’s fair dates in June.

“Right now, we don’t have enough money to put on a fair in 2014,” she said. “We can’t stand around and allow that to happen.”

The fair’s financial problems, which have been ongoing in one degree or another for a number of years, became acute this year. The 2013 fair, held over five days in June, saw attendance decline by 48 percent from 2012 and finished with a drop in gross revenue of 30 percent. Expenses were cut by $1 million, but the fair was still splashed with red ink.

Moving the fair dates from September to June while having to leave horse racing in September contributed to the declines, along with a reduction in fair days from eight to five. Per-day attendance was also down, Nannette noted.

“We knew we couldn’t continue having the fair in September — 4-H and FFA youths are in school in September and couldn’t take part — but we couldn’t move the racing dates back to June also,” she explained. “It was a tough decision to make.”

This year’s abbreviated fair run in mid-June started out with strong 4-H and FFA participation, but it didn’t gain any attendance momentum during the five-day run.

“We tried some new ideas, with continuous entertainment in the fairgrounds — instead of name entertainment each evening — and special events, some with attendance charges, some not, in front of the grandstand, but it didn’t work out like we had hoped,” she said.

This year, a $3 admission fee was charged, but the parking charge was reduced from $10 to $5, and sponsorships were down.

“We have no security issues in recent years, but we need stronger marketing — much stronger,” she said. “The major problem was attendance. How do we remedy that?”

There are so many competing entertainment options that make a fair comeback an uphill struggle, but one idea that might help would be re-establishing community exhibits — with more than farm products on display. Beefed-up community days could also help develop renewed interest in the fair, especially in areas outside of Stockton, like Tracy and Mountain House in our part of the county, I said to her.

“I feel that way, too,” Nanette replied. “The fair has to appeal to people all over the county, and a recent meeting we had at Mountain House showed some real interest. We have a quality county fair at a first-rate facility. We need more people to be involved with it and know about it.”

The Sept. 23 meeting could develop some ideas that will help get the fair back on its feet. That’s Nanette’s hope right now.

“The fair has been important part of my life, and I want it to go forward,” she said. “We’ll do all we can to make that happen.”

More and more county residents need to share Nanette’s concern and commitment to keep the fair going. It’s too important for San Joaquin County to come to an end.

• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at shm@tracypress.com.

 
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