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Admissions down at Umatilla County Fair, but concessions and carnival up

Gate sales came in $40,000 under budget as board estimates even larger crowds
Jade McDowell

East Oregonian

Published on September 6, 2018 6:07PM

Fair-goers line-up to ride the Yoyo at the carnival during the 2018 Umatilla County Fair in Hermiston.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Fair-goers line-up to ride the Yoyo at the carnival during the 2018 Umatilla County Fair in Hermiston.

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Calculating how many people attended the Umatilla County Fair can be complicated, and this year’s numbers have provided a bit of a mystery.

Fair board member Lucas Wagner said not all numbers are finalized, but it appears admissions revenue was down while revenue from concessions, the carnival and other ways people spend money at the fair were “significantly” up.

“I’m scratching my head as to how that could be,” Wagner said.

Umatilla County chief financial officer Robert Pahl said admission revenue was about $145,000 this year, compared to $166,120 in 2017 and $188,050 in 2016. The county’s 2018-2019 budget adopted this summer had predicted $185,000 in admissions revenue.

Wagner said ticket sales at the gate don’t provide a full picture of fair attendance because there are so many people who get in free with passes for volunteers, sponsors and other people involved in the fair. So the fair board usually takes into account concert attendance, concessions sales, carnival wristbands, parking and other factors to calculate a more inclusive number. Based on those factors he believes the admission number was about 82,000 — about 800 more than what he calculated for 2017. Wagner said they sold about 40,000 tickets through TicketMaster.

Wagner said there is no way to know for sure why gate sales were $40,000 less than the county budgeted for. He said a part of that comes from the fact that people who paid for reserved seating at the concerts are still supposed to pay for admission but were not counted in with gate sales this year.

“That’s a pretty big hole there,” he said.

That will be fixed next year, he said, as well as a misconception the public seemed to have this year that they could enter the fair for free before 9 a.m., when in fact only people working the fair were supposed to be let in during that time. He said the fair board will work to find and fix any other factors that might be depressing gate sales.

The fair made up for the lower gate sales with increased revenue in other areas, such as concessions. Wagner said parking has also been a “huge boon” now that the fair has more of a “captive audience” at the new fairgrounds outside of town.

The budget Umatilla County adopted for 2018-2019 shows that the 2016 fair (the last at the fairgrounds in the center of town) brought in $16,630 in parking, while the first year at EOTEC brought in $41,327. Inside the fairgrounds, beer concessions jumped from $13,272 in 2016 to $19,917 in 2017 while food concessions had a small increase and sponsorship dollars rose from $99,598 in 2016 to $158,010 in 2017.

Wagner said it looks like it will end up being “about a wash” between the cost to hold the fair at EOTEC versus the old fairgrounds. There are some cost savings with the newer facility, but the county also has to pay rent and bring in more rented items like panels that can be removed the rest of the year.

Pahl, who said he plans to meet with the fair board soon about this year’s fair numbers, said he thought it might end up being bit little cheaper to hold the fair at EOTEC once all the kinks get worked out.

The fair has had four leaders in the past four fairs — longtime manager Peggy Anderson left for a new job, manager Don Slone was laid off after a year when the county decided to close the manager position, Cyndie Driscoll worked as an activities and sponsorship coordinator for a year and now Angie McNalley has the title of fair coordinator.

Wagner said he believes the fair has found the right staffing formula going forward and McNalley is a great asset to the fair.

“We stumbled our way through and found our footing now,” he said.

Farm-City Pro Rodeo

For the Farm-City Pro Rodeo, after fair week Dennis Barnett said the final attendance numbers for the rodeo would fall somewhere between 16,000 and 17,000 people — similar to numbers for 2017, he said. The rodeo saw about a 5 percent increase in attendance between 2016 and 2017 when it made the jump from the old arena in the center of town out to EOTEC.

Barnett said there was no doubt the extreme heat on Wednesday and Thursday of fair week encouraged some people to stay home, so better weather next year (2017 also saw temperatures over 100 degrees) could encourage some extra attendance.

The rodeo itself went “outstanding,” Barnett said, and the rodeo board is always looking for ways to improve each year. They continue to make improvements to the arena, as well, and this year featured wrought-iron fencing in the Chute 8 area and a new scoreboard.

He called the Farm-City Pro Rodeo the “best rodeo on the west side of the Mississippi” and said when there are empty seats in the arena, people are missing out.

“Everything’s there, we just have to get people there,” he said.

The rodeo gained four new sponsors this year. The rodeo signed a lease with EOTEC for $10,000 a year, and Barnett said while that doesn’t create much of a cash flow problem for the rodeo, the organization does have extra costs now associated with debt service from the approximately $1 million it has put into building the mercantile building and other improvements to EOTEC.

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Contact Jade McDowell at jmcdowell@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4536.



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