Although the weather will likely still be sweltering, the Mother Lode Fair Board of Directors is looking for something new and exciting next year that will draw people despite the heat.

The board hosted a special public forum Wednesday night at the fairgrounds in Sonora to review key takeaways from this year’s fair held July 7 through 9 and brainstorm ideas for reversing a trend of declining attendance.

“Why do people not attend? I heard two things over and over again: The heat and there’s nothing at the fair for me,” said Jo Rodefer of Columbia. “Honestly, there would be nothing at the fair for me if I wasn’t a vendor.”

Attendance this year was estimated to be down about 20 percent over last, though specific numbers won’t be provided until the board’s Aug. 30 meeting.

Ken Alstott, part-time fair manager, said about 80 percent of the attendance was in the evening hours due to the triple-digit heat during the day. He suggested opening the fair sometime after the typical noon start time and extending the length from three days to four.

The fair, which marked its 80th anniversary this year, previously ran four days until it was reduced to three in 2015 in part to reduce some of costs for the cash-strapped 29th District Agriculture Association.

July 13 through 16 are tentative dates for next year that were discussed Wednesday, though the board won’t make a decision until Aug. 30.

There was some talk early on about possibly holding the fair in June as opposed to July. However, that wasn’t pursued due to competing events that month such as the Father’s Day Fly-In at Columbia Airport and concerns about how it would impact people raising livestock for auction.

The large livestock auction set a record this year with $361,000 in total sales, up $105,000 from the previous record set in 2016.

Board member Ron Hamilton, who serves on the fair’s livestock committee, acknowledged that the community showed strong support for the auctions and said the board now should give something back by improving the rest of the event’s offerings.

“We need to figure out what we need to do to be unique on this side of the barn,” Hamilton said.

“One of the things I’ve been told is the carnival didn’t have a lot of variety for the older kids.”

Alstott said the fair’s typical carnival operator, Paul Maurer, won’t be available on the July 13-16. Board member Maren Paris said that could be an opportunity to weigh their options and try someone new.

“I think just simply having a new carnival vendor will create buzz,” Paris said.

Craig Conklin, of Sonora, suggested some water attractions to help people beat the heat, such as a slide or dunk tank.

Rodefer said there should be a greater focus on artisan food like county fairs in the midwest. She suggested a possible farm-to-table attraction because of the large amount of agricultural producers in the area.

Gail Aruta, of Sonora, said she drives two to three hours and braves triple-digit heat to attend Cal Expo in Sacramento, which was held July 14 through 30 this year, because there’s plenty of educational and interesting attractions that she doesn’t find elsewhere.

Another idea discussed was changing up some of the arena events.

This year’s fair included a bull riding competition on Friday that cost $12,000 to host and hauled in $1,700 from about 250 tickets sold.

Alstott said the truck and tractor pulls on Saturday night were much more successful, earning about $12,000 on a cost of nearly $10,000. The demolition derby was also estimated to break even or earn a slight profit when the numbers are returned from the state, despite negative reviews due to there being only seven cars.

One way to avoid a lack of cars in the future, Alstott said, would be to put an incentive on the promoter’s contract that stipulates they will earn less money if they don’t have at least a certain number participating.

Although much work still needs to be done, the board that includes three members who were appointed in just the past year stressed that they were committed to making the necessary changes that will improve the experience.

Mike Macon, a former board member who resigned out of frustration in January 2014 because he felt the board wasn’t willing to explore new ideas, praised the new board for trying to make a difference for the better.

“This board has listened to more new ideas in the last half-hour than all boards in the past combined,” Macon said. “I applaud you for that.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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