todayJuly 28, 2019 222
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SAN JOSE — The Santa Clara County Fair just isn’t what it used to be.
In its heyday, the fair ran for two weeks and annually drew hundreds of thousands of visitors, as many as 687,679 in 1987. But over the past two decades, attendance steadily dwindled, the fair was reduced to four days and the event lost money year after year.
Lynda Dunlop used to faithfully go there when growing up in San Jose and later took her children to participate in the 4-H Club. They would stay there for several days showing their horses, which stayed in a barn at the back of the fairgrounds.
But Dunlop, now a Concord resident, hadn’t been to the fair since the 1990s until she returned there in 2017 with her grandchildren. She was struck by how much the fairgrounds had changed — the barn was bulldozed and a grandstand for concerts and motor racing is gone. For the last several years, large animals have been housed and shown inside an exposition hall.
“To me, that’s not a county fair when you have livestock in a building,” Dunlop said. “[The fairgrounds] used to be green, with lots of trees — it was pretty.” But when she last visited, “it seemed run down …[and] there was hardly anybody there. It was a very small, carnival-like thing.”
Sandy Erickson, a San Jose resident who went to the fair almost every year for three decades, shared that sentiment.
“I just loved the vibe of the old fair so much, the energy of it. … It made it feel like something really special that you didn’t want to miss,” Erickson said. “[Now] it’s so small, you can see the entire thing in less than an hour. I don’t mind paying admission to an event if it’s going to take me all day to see everything.”
With the fair returning on Thursday for its 75th anniversary, organizers are hoping to douse negative perceptions and build on the momentum from last year’s attendance surge. They’re also hoping last Sunday’s shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival won’t scare people away from the fair.
The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office released a statement this week saying it intends “to provide an increased level of security for all attendees,” though it didn’t elaborate. “It is our continuing mission to provide a safe and welcoming environment for the residents and visitors of our county,” the statement says, adding “The Sheriff’s Office encourages everyone to come out and enjoy their time at this fun, family-friendly event.”
In 2018, attendance nearly doubled from the previous year and for the first time in at least three decades the fair actually turned a profit, albeit a small one of $14,000. Still, that’s a major turnaround considering the fair lost $245,000 in 2017 and even more in years past.
“My goal was to revitalize and breathe some new air into our fair, and show folks it can become vibrant and attractive entertainment for Santa Clara County,” said Abe Andrade, who was hired 18 months ago as executive director of Fairgrounds Management Corporation, a nonprofit that runs the fair and manages the 158-acre fairgrounds.
In addition to carnival rides, farm animals, concerts and other live entertainment such as hypnotist and puppet shows, this year’s fair will feature an “International Village” with Vietnamese, Indo-American and Latino-themed festivals for three days, 15 murals painted by local artists that represent each city in the county, and firework shows every night.
And anyone who fills out a survey about the fair gets a chance to win a diamond ring worth $5,000.
It’s all part of the county’s concerted effort to win back some former fairgoers who have strayed to other fairgrounds, to attract new visitors and perhaps to regain some respectability for the Bay Area’s largest county.
In 2018 the Alameda County Fair, which runs for 18 days, drew 454,276 people, or more than 25,000 people each day. And even in San Mateo County, which has less than half of Santa Clara County’s population, the county fair dew 127,000 people over nine days last year.
By comparison, the Santa Clara County Fair drew roughly 25,000 people total in 2017 and 44,000 in 2018, according to Andrade.
But the fair is still the year’s big highlight for members of 4-H and Future Farmers of America — an opportunity to participate in competitions, show off their animals and teach visitors about raising livestock.
“For Santa Clara County, an agriculturally-based community, to not support a fair that celebrates kids with an interest in agriculture, it’s denying where we came from, in a way,” said Susan Weaver, a program representative and longtime volunteer for the Santa Clara County 4-H Club, which has 700 students participating countywide.
“There are kids who have never raised an animal and are involved in the computer science program, and kids who have never done anything but raise animals and live in south county,” Weaver said. “And kids in urban areas who keep animals at a community ranch — you can live in an apartment and have a steer.”
There are some, however, who believe the fair has stagnated because it hasn’t kept pace with Santa Clara County’s cultural and technological changes.
Howard Thomas, a former finance executive for the fairgrounds, argues the fair should shift from its traditional focus on agricultural activities to one that incorporates the county’s tech history and different cultural groups
“I’m a great supporter of a fair, not a 19th century agricultural fair, but of a fair that really involves and celebrates all of our communities,” Thomas said.
To that end, the fair added attractions last year without detracting from the fair’s focus on agriculture, including a robotics program, an LGBTQ-themed night and an Indian Independence Day celebration, Andrade pointed out.
The fair also has ramped up its marketing this year, largely through Facebook and Instagram, including ads in Vietnamese and Spanish, said Dan Orloff, a marketing consultant for the fairgrounds.
In addition, county supervisors approved $300,000 earlier this year to pay for a new concert lawn and stage, murals celebrating the fair’s anniversary, and a new outdoor tent for large livestock previously housed inside an expo hall.
The fairgrounds is also looking to improve its space to attract new events year-round, such as the acrobatics performance troupe Cirque du Soleil booked for this year.
It’s an uphill climb, and not least among the fair’s problems has been the way it’s been managed.
Fairgrounds Management Corporation, formed by the county in 1995 after a previous operator declared bankruptcy, has been criticized over the years for mismanagement, particularly by a grand jury report in 2011 and another one earlier this year.
The emergence of new event venues like convention centers in San Jose and Santa Clara coincided with the fairgrounds’ early struggles in the 1980s and 1990s. In contrast, the fairgrounds’ facilities, built in the 1950s, were showing their age.
The county has considered redeveloping parts of the fairgrounds for a different use three times, to no avail.
In the early 2000s, the county struck an agreement to build a House of Blues concert venue on part of the site. To prepare for the project, it demolished the fairground’s grandstand — where concerts, as well as horse, car and motorcycle racing events, had been held over the decades — along with the barn and some shade structures for livestock.
But after a recession scuttled financing for the concert venue, the project fell through and the razed structures were never replaced. Two other attempts in the 2000s to solicit redevelopment proposals also fizzled out.
Thomas, who was one of two fairgrounds executives to resign in 2016, argues the fair has struggled because the county doesn’t have a coherent vision for the fairgrounds and won’t invest new money in the property.
“Not only did it not get any financial support from the county, it really didn’t get any moral support either,” Thomas said.
Constant talk about redeveloping the fairgrounds — and questions about the county fair’s future — created a perception that the fair has passed away, Weaver said.
Members of the 4-H program were dismayed at an announcement made during this year’s “Red, White and Blue” Fourth of July parade in San Jose.
“The person doing the announcing was saying, ‘4-H used to show at the fair, too bad we don’t have the fair anymore,’” said Peggy LaBarbera, whose daughter is in 4-H and attended the parade. “So I went back up to the booth and said, ‘Can you tell him there is a fair?’ But he was already announcing another group.”
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