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Little Man jumps 19 feet Saturday while warming up for the dock-diving competition inside Compton Arena at the Jackson County Fair. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

Taking a dive?

Messing with a county fair can be risky business, especially in a down economy. Many things changed at this year's Jackson County Fair — admission, concert and ride prices, vendor rents, even the layout of the food court and vendor areas, which was aimed at reducing bottlenecks and spreading out the crowds.

That worked well the first three days of the six-day fair, but when attendance dropped Friday and again on Saturday afternoon, the new layout made the crowd seem sparse.

"I suppose we're creatures of habit, but I've had people asking where they moved the food," lemonade vendor Doug Hively said Saturday.

Hively, whose Lemons on the Loose lemonade stand appeared to be a perfect oasis at the Jackson County Fair on a day when the mercury shot past 90 degrees by mid-afternoon, was perplexed.

"This has been by far my worst fair, sales wise," said the Tucscon, Ariz., vendor. "My business has been non-existent. The food is spread all over now and it's hard to find. Here I am, out in the middle of nowhere."

The changes to the layout, said Fair Director Dave Koellermeier, were part of a plan instituted after vendors complained that the previous setup created bottlenecks.

"We've spread some stuff around," Koellermeier said. "Some like it and some are disappointed, but we've actually got a larger footprint. We've stretched north toward Gate 4 and we're using the Hay Palace, which historically was dead space."

After a strong start Tuesday through Thursday, attendance at the fair dwindled on Friday, often one of two peak days at the fair, which runs through today. Saturday afternoon was slow again.

"That's largely attributed to the concert line-up on the front end of the fair," said Koellermeier, referring to Big Time Rush, Clay Walker and Joan Jett.

"It was so congested and compacted in the food area before that there wasn't room to maneuver," he said. "Yet I hear people say we're missing food vendors, when they are really right here."

Koellermeier said attendance figures were not yet available for this year's fair, but vendors say they've noticed a decrease.

"It's been pretty quiet," said Shannon Holder, who owns Gallop'n Glitz in Grants Pass. "When people walk in, the atmosphere is not exciting. I've heard people posting (on social-media sites) 'Don't even bother going,' which is unfortunate."

Robert Watts of Las Vegas has been on the fair circuit for 23 years, selling slushy products from the West Coast to Iowa. He said this might be his last trip through Jackson County.

"There is no seniors day anymore, and you could get an adult admission and concert for $8," Watts said. "Now it's $11 and you have to buy a concert ticket."

Fair workers passed out free lawn-seating tickets Friday and Saturday to help fill the concert area.

"I can understand what fairs are going through in this economy," Watts continued, "but raising prices on everything in one year isn't good. Friday was one of my worst days. I don't know if I can justify $500 for a hotel, plus food and gas and not make money. The rent and stock are fixed costs. By the time I'm through, I walk away with $20 or $30 to get to the next show. I'm sure I can find a smaller event with less rent and more people."

Lonnie Tharp and his daughter Gina Snyder were selling wilderness water purifiers and other survival equipment. Snyder said she made several sales during the week to people who called her and asked to meet her at the gate.

"They weren't going to pay to come in," she said. "So I took my Visa machine and met them at the gate."

Tharp said families still caught in the jobless recovery have a hard time keeping up with price increases.

"After you pay admission for parents and a couple of kids, in a blink of an eye you've gone through $50 and not done much," Tharp said.

If not for the diving dogs show in the middle of Compton Arena, he said, there wouldn't be any foot traffic through an area that once was one of the fair's focal points.

Rocky Fender, who launched the outdoor kitchen store Guy n Grills this spring, said he was disappointed by the relative inactivity compared to what used to be a crush of people.

"I've heard a lot of complaining about concert prices from people who remember when they used to be free (with admission)," Fender said. "I know some other vendors have said they may not come back, but for me it's part of starting a new business."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email business@mailtribune.com.

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