Jackson County Expo Under Fire

The Following is a guest editorial from Former Jackson County Fair Board Member, John Dimick.  Dimick served 22 years as a member of the Jackson County Fairboard, 8 years on the Oregon County Fair Commission and 6 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.

It’s a heartening to actually see a few of our 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 actually figured out that one of government’s roles is to provide an environment where business can be successful despite myriad regulations and counter productive policies and that a comparatively small amount of public money invested can leverage very significant returns from the private sector. It’s too bad that our own 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 that the fiscal situation is so dire that closure of the facility is a very realistic option and that they could need a million dollars to get through the year. Incredible.

Using the old analogy about how a pessimist sees a glass of water as half empty while an optimist sees it as half full, somehow the county sees the glass as empty when in actuality, it’s 7/8 full. Here’s why. The facts are that 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 only comprises approximately half of the income needed to operate the park annually; the rest comes from interim event rentals and food and beverage receipts. Those receipts come from a myriad of events like large and small horse shows, stalls, 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, as well as many other events I didn’t list. Some weekends may find as many as five different events going on simultaneously. The reality is that annually the facility generates on it’s own at least 87% (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. Event producers now have lots of options considering that customers will accept longer travel distances to get a good deal. The Jackson County Fairgrounds’ evolution as a premier horse facility is tempered by a shortage of stalls, which results in a large temporary stall rental business.

While I’ve been an unpaid volunteer around there for over 41 years, one of literally hundreds, it’s very important to remember that the facility is actually an economic engine that helps a great many people earn a living. Obviously the on-grounds vendors and renters and their employees do what they do to make a living or at least a significant part of their income selling a myriad of goods and services. There are also five permanent employees and approximately two hundred temporary employees that make all or part of their living at the fairgrounds. The very sizable amount of money from all of that commerce and employment finds its way into our local economy, the impact being multiplied by whatever accountant’s multiplier that 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 in excess of $840,000 to buy the animals produced and shown by our youthful exhibitors. That money will go to pay for animals, most produced locally; feed purchased from local dealers, local veterinary services as well as supplies needed in the showring. 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 project 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.

Going back to the other events I mentioned previously, dollars, sometimes in very significant amounts, change hands. A great many of the producers and participants of those activities stay in local motels, eat in local restaurants, shop in local stores and buy local fuel while they are here. Just ask someone from the Grange or Big R what happens to their sales when the Expo has a big horseshow going on.

One of the ongoing challenges to the fairgrounds that everyone tends to forget is that there is an expected social service component of its mission; things like open riding, 4H and FFA field days, ag. literacy events, youth equestrian activities, etc. Also during major weather events, the facilities are used to house stranded travelers and heavy truck parking. Farm animals dislocated by wildfires are sheltered and the facility has served as a major fire camp. Numerous police agencies use the facility for training. These are all high value uses that cost money for utilities, machine use and employee wages, but provided free or at a reduced cost because the users can’t or shouldn’t have to pay. These are things that the Expo provides because it’s right to do so and gets no credit for doing.

It’s interesting that some other Oregon counties are enlightened enough to understand the value of events held at their fairgrounds and actually give some significant financial support to insure the viability of their fairgrounds venue. Places like Lane County, Douglas County, Deschutes County and Washington County. 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 revenue.

Many of our community’s citizens have done far more than their share to keep the fair facility functional and able to host the myriad of events that are held there. Over eight million dollars has been donated by private citizens, through the Friends of the Fair Foundation to build and enhance fairgrounds buildings and facilities. Those supporters really understand the value of the fairgrounds, culturally and financially, to the community and their generous giving of their own personal funds has genuinely helped the Expo park get closer to fiscal stability. Along the way, quite a few building tradespeople have earned high wages constructing these donated structures, again at no cost to the county, while very large payments for construction permits have been made to the county’s own planning department, helping to keep those folks employed. The county really owes something to these donors other than a cavalier threat to close the facility.

Another subject, for another time, is the very real contribution that the activities held at the fairgrounds make to keeping kids busy and out of trouble. It would take someone more knowledgeable than me to tell you what it costs us to investigate, arrest, prosecute and treat/punish young violators. I’m sure that it is very significant and every youngster that is kept out trouble by being involved in something at the fairgrounds is a very important real savings to the county justice system.

It’s too easy to discount the impact of the fairgrounds on the local economy because the facility’s budget and staff is comparatively small. I submit that its impact on the economy is extremely significant and many businesses and families need and would sorely miss what it provides financially. Maybe the policy makers should figure out how to make this all work for everyone instead of hampering the use of a great community business asset by continual nit-picking and harassing the staff and Fair Board.

“Over the last ten years, the Fair Board has paid over a million dollars back to Jackson County for chargebacks. These are fees for auditing, county administration costs and the fairground’s share of the costs for the commissioners office.”

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