Overall attendance at the 80th annual Mother Lode Fair was down about 20 percent this year over last based on the chief executive officer’s early estimates, but the livestock auctions raised significantly more money than ever before.
Ken Alstott, part-time fair CEO, said he won’t have the final totals tallied until early August but he felt several factors could have led to a decrease in attendance, including the hot weather, pricing and past negative publicity surrounding internal tensions on the fair’s Board of Directors.
Alstott said the board is planning to host a wrap-up meeting in early August to hear from the public about what they thought of this year’s fair, though an exact date has yet to be set.
“We want to hear all of the positives and negatives,” Alstott said. “We’re looking for that input so we can make adjustments for next year.”
Despite the drop in overall attendance, the number of people who went to watch the truck and tractor pulls at the fairgrounds’ arena was up roughly 16 percent over last year based on Alstott’s early estimates.
Attendance at the demolition derby on Sunday, which Alstott said he heard had fewer cars than in previous years, was down about 5 percent.
A bull-riding competition on Friday drew about four times as many people as a country music concert held at the arena on the same day during the previous year’s fair, but Alstott noted that neither were very well attended.
Alstott said part of the reason the final numbers won’t be tallied until August has to do with the multiple new family packages and coupons that provided entry to the fair and arena events at discount rates, in addition to his part-time schedule and the use of a volunteer for bookkeeping.
“There’s a lot of moving parts,” Alstott said. “It’s not as simple as a concert where they just sell tickets.”
The family packages and discount coupons were created in response to input received from the community prior to the fair about the prices being too expensive, Alstott said.
Although there was a drop in attendance, Alstott remained optimistic about the fairgrounds’ future. He said the interim events like the Celtic Faire are doing well and more are being added, such as the recent Sonora Comic Con and the upcoming Unruly Country Brew N’ Que Festival on Sept. 30.
Alstott said the fair gets revenue from rental fees paid by event promoters, as well as about 15 percent of profits if the event has alcohol.
“The overall financial health of the fair is in good shape right now,” Alstott said. “They’ve done a good job at monitoring revenues and expenses over the past six months.”
The fair’s budget has struggled mightily since the state slashed funding for county fairs during the economic downturn.
However, there have been signs of improvement since turmoil between board members and fairgrounds employees led to the resignation of the fair’s former CEO Stacey Dodge last July.
The board passed a balanced budget for this year after running deficits in the past five out of six years. It also approved a five-year strategic plan that was developed with input from the community.
Alstott, who lives in Victorville, was hired by the board to replace Dodge in March. He brought eight years of experience managing the San Bernardino County Fairgrounds in Victorville, followed by four as CEO of the Cow Palace in Daly City.
“I have a few ideas I’ll share with the board at the meeting in August that I think will help them going forward,” Alstott said, though he declined to get specific Wednesday.
Alstott thanked fair volunteers, sponsors and agencies like the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office for providing security and Tuolumne County Transit for free trolley rides, adding that the fairgrounds bear the costs for all of the services otherwise.
About $361,000 in total sales at this year’s Junior Livestock Auction broke the previous record set during last year’s fair by about $105,000, an increase of roughly 40 percent. The number of animals — which included swine, lambs and market steers — that were sold was 123, which was the same as last year.
“It’s a community that stepped up to support their youth and agriculture,” said Kim Helmbold, the fair’s livestock superintendent. “It could have something to do with the economy, but this community has always been extremely supportive.”
Some of the top buyers were Black Oak Casino Resort ($73,810), Canepa and Sons ($20,238), Chicken Ranch Casino ($17,322), Front Porch Communications ($15,333), Plum Construction ($14,768), Reiches Outpost ($12,563), Sonora Grocery Outlet ($13,497), and Crook Logging ($13,706).
The total amount raised in Sunday’s Small Livestock Auction was $37,725 off the sale of 57 animals, which included turkeys, chickens, rabbits and goats. Sue Moore, president of the Small Livestock Association, said the total was roughly the same as last year.
Moore said the participants donated 26 animals for a special auction that raised $9,800 for improvements to the fairgrounds’ livestock area. Alstott added that donations collected during Sunday’s awards ceremony totaled about $4,700 for a needed new sound system in the livestock area.
Ron Hamilton, a longtime 4-H club leader who was appointed to the fair’s board in May by Gov. Jerry Brown, said he believes sales at the auctions are evidence of a generous community and that the fair is moving past the difficulties it’s faced in recent years.
“We’re fortunate to live in a community that understands a board is going to go through challenges from time to time,” Hamilton said. “I think if we come together and listen to ideas, we’ll only improve.”