Expo is an economic engine for the valley

It's heartening to see a few national political leaders finally realize that healthy private-sector employment is the key to solving our nation's financial woes. I sense that some of those folks have figured out that a comparatively small amount of public money can leverage significant returns from the private sector. It's too bad our local politicians and bureaucrats can't figure that out when it comes to the Jackson County Fairgrounds and Exposition Park.

The county administrator would have you believe the fiscal situation is so dire that closing the facility is a realistic option and that they could need $1 million to get through the year. Incredible.

To twist the old analogy, the county sees the glass as empty when in actuality, it's 7/8 full. Here's why.

Despite commentary to the contrary, as well as incomplete figures from one of the administrator's assistants, the just-completed county fair made a lot of money. However, income from the fair is only about half of what is needed to operate the park annually; the rest comes from interim event rentals and food and beverage receipts.

Those receipts come from myriad events, including horse shows, stall rentals, the Family Fun Center, sportsman shows, monster truck shows, ropings, car shows and sales, RV sales, weddings, funerals, stamp shows, gun shows, motorcycle races, dog shows, meetings, auctions and many other events I didn't list. Some weekends may find as many as five different events going on simultaneously.

The reality is that the facility generates on its own at least 87 percent (7/8) of the dollars needed to operate it, at no cost to the county. Sometimes it's been more, even to the point of breaking even.

The Fair Board has been criticized for not charging more for facility rentals. The county needs to remember that the fairgrounds has to compete with other high-quality public facilities along the I-5 corridor, as well as some good private ones, and excessive rates will result in lost rentals.

It's important to remember that the facility is an economic engine that helps many people earn a living. Obviously the on-grounds vendors and renters and their employees make a living or at least a significant part of their income selling a myriad of goods and services. Five permanent employees and approximately 200 temporary employees make all or part of their living at the fairgrounds. The money from all that commerce and employment finds its way into our local economy, the impact increased by whatever accountant's multiplier you want to use.

A good example of this is the 4H and FFA livestock auctions. Despite another year of economic doldrums, the community spent more than $840,000 to buy the animals produced and shown by our youthful exhibitors.

That money pays for animals, most produced locally; feed purchased from local dealers, local veterinary services and supplies needed in the show ring. Many of the animals will be processed by local meat packers for home use and some end up in the local retail food trade. Many animals are financed by local lenders and insured by local agents. Each of those exhibitors has money withheld from their check, some of which goes to the fairgrounds to offset expenses of producing the livestock shows and reduced food vendor revenue on auction nights. Every level in the process generates income to someone.

Many participants in Expo activities stay in local motels, eat in local restaurants, shop in local stores and buy local fuel. Just ask someone from the Grange or Big R what happens to their sales when the Expo has a big horse show.

It's interesting that some other Oregon counties — Lane, Douglas, Deschutes and Washington, to name a few — are enlightened enough to understand the value of their fairgrounds and provide significant financial support. Sometimes the funds come from hotel/motel taxes, sometimes directly from the general fund. The important thing is that they realize that a healthy fairgrounds will generate much-needed income in their communities. The Jackson County Fairgrounds has received some much-appreciated financial support from the city of Central Point's motel tax receipts.

Many private citizens have done far more than their share to keep the fairgrounds functional. Over $8 million has been donated through the Friends of the Fair Foundation to build and enhance buildings and facilities. Quite a few tradespeople have earned high wages constructing these donated structures, again at no cost to the county, while large payments for construction permits have been made to the county's own planning department. The county owes these donors more than a cavalier threat to close the facility.

It's easy to discount the fairgrounds' impact on the local economy because its budget and staff is comparatively small. But its impact is significant, and many would sorely miss what it provides financially.

Maybe the policymakers should figure out how to make this all work for everyone instead of hampering a great community business asset by continually nit-picking and harassing the staff and Fair Board.

John Dimick served 22 years as a member of the Jackson County Fair Board, eight years on the Oregon County Fair Commission and six years with the Oregon State Fair Advisory Committee. He continues to actively judge livestock at fairs across Oregon. In 2010, he was recognized by the Oregon Fairs Association with their Distinguished Service Award.

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