Foothill fairs are faring better

By Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat January 16, 2013 09:10 am

Inmates from Vallecito Conservation Camp No. 1 work to rake fallen leaves at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds Tuesday afternoon. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
For the second year in a row without state funding, county fairs in Tuolumne and Calaveras are relying on strong community support to operate independently.

After the 2011 fairs, the state eliminated funds that sustained the Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee as well as the Mother Lode Fair with hundreds of thousands of dollars. The cuts were part of belt-tightening brought on by multi-billion dollar state budget deficits.

Some counties’ fairs didn’t survive. Those on either side of the Stanislaus have found ways to make it work and are each preparing for a fair this year that some two years ago thought would never come.

Organizers of both events credit strong support from nonprofit Friends of the Fair organizations.

“It’s about empowering the community to be involved like they never have been before,” said Calaveras fair CEO Laurie Giannini. “We also have a board that doesn’t just sit in the meetings but they physically volunteer … almost every day.”

The Friends of the Fair in Calaveras recently teamed up with Angels Camp contractor Micah Rolleri to put a new roof on the floriculture building at Frogtown, as the fairgrounds are commonly known. Now that it keeps water out, the space can be rented and used for storage in the off-season.

Unlike the four-year-old Calaveras Friends group, the Friends of the Mother Lode Fair have been around for “many years,” said Marge Kiriluk, president of the Mother Lode Fair board of directors. However, she said it really “rekindled when we lost all our funding” a year and a half ago.

“We have an active Friends of the Fair group really working hard for us,” she said, holding major fundraisers.

Both fairs have taken extensive cost-cutting measures. Giannini is paid part-time and moved up to the CEO position when predecessor Ray Malerbi retired more than a year ago. The Calaveras fair has no full-time paid staff. Mother Lode Fair CEO Jan Haydn-Myer spent the past year as a part-timer before retiring effective Jan. 31. The Sonora fair’s head maintenance man also became a part-timer. Interviews of candidates for a new fair manager will take place later this month, Kiriluk said.

Giannini said her fair has taken every measure to cut utility bills, including running just a small space heater when she is the only one in the office. The fair has leased space to the family entertainment center Barrel of Monkeez and to SEI Solid Waste for parking. She said a third “light industry” tenant is being sought in an effort to cover all the ongoing utility bills.

Kiriluk said an inaugural “Me-Wuk Bash” with a $5,000 purse destruction derby will debut March 23. Sponsored by the Black Oak Casino and Sonora Auto & Truck Dismantling, she said proceeds will go to the fair and, if successful, it will become an annual fundraising event. It will join other off-season revenue sources like the Celtic Faire, also in March, April’s Home and Garden Show and Friends of the Fair-sponsored sports expo as well as the Mother Lode Round-Up, Kiriluk said.

Giannini said the new way of doing business is paying off. Preliminary financials at this time in 2011 showed the fair $180,000 in the red before the state funds came in. The corresponding figure today is $90,000 in the positive, “not just on paper, but that money is in the bank,” Giannini said. “That’s new.”

Kiriluk said the Mother Lode Fair is winding down the books for 2012 and will have final figures in the coming days.

Both fairs have eyed the ballot box as a way to strengthen their financial positions. A lodging tax measure in Tuolumne County that would have helped fund the fair failed last June. The Calaveras County Fair is among seven nonprofits in a coalition called Citizens for a Better Calaveras supporting a lodging tax increase that is expected to go to a vote later this year.

The Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee is scheduled for May 16 through 19. The Mother Lode Fair will take place July 11 through 14.