Drive through the Western states and as you reach the outskirts of many small towns you’ll pass the county fairgrounds.
Many show signs of wear and age; but some are so neatly groomed, crisply painted and clearly signed that they signal a community that exudes pride.
In Clatsop County, our fairgrounds are somewhat hidden from view south of Astoria off the winding Oregon Highway 202. You have to know where you are going to get there and the full scope of the operation isn’t immediately visible from the road.
Out of sight, out of mind?
Well, perhaps, but it costs $1.4 million a year to operate the fairgrounds. Because a chunk of that is taxpayers’ money, it is essential to run it in an efficient manner.
The site is home to the weeklong Clatsop County Fair, and for years has hosted the Astoria Warrenton Crab, Seafood & Wine Festival and the Astoria Scandinavian Midsummer Festival.
The operation is far too expensive to maintain with revenue from only three events, so a succession of managers and boards have sought to use the facility to its utmost, with concerts, monster truck rallies and circuses.
Behind-the-scenes difficulties in the fair’s operations and recent loose spending practices emerged in public view during a recent report to the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners.
The budget includes significant dollars earmarked for materials and services, and it was revealed that fair managers have burned through the total, about $438,000, in just six months.
After much back-and-forth grumbling in a public session, it was suggested that the three road miles between the fairgrounds and the county offices in downtown Astoria are a barrier to effective communication — and may have led to that “out of sight” mindset.
With respect, in this day and age, that’s baloney. Governments elsewhere and private-sector operations use technology to bridge geographical gaps far greater than three miles — and continue to do so every workday. There is no excuse for leaders at different offices of any organization to be permanently out of touch, save perhaps briefly during a rare blizzard.
The fair is a strange creature, of course. It’s not a Clatsop County department. It’s a separate entity and thus not supervised by the county manager. Its board consists of five volunteers appointed by the county commission. The level of supervision of paid fair staff depends on the diligence of this volunteer board. And the county’s awareness of any potential difficulties depends largely on its liaison, an elected commissioner, currently Lisa Clement.
Rather than point fingers, we choose to take an optimistic tone.
Fair funding is a complicated matter. Income is subject to change. And, of course, North Coast weather causes significant maintenance issues. Rental fees, hotel taxes and revenue from a voter-supported levy figure into the mix. Since serious financial problems were addressed back in 2006, voters have consistently said they are happy to support it.
Now aspects of the fair’s spending patterns are on the front burner. With the expert assistance of Monica Steele, the county’s budget and finance director, they should be better addressed.
The Clatsop County Fairgrounds can be a jewel in our community if efficiently run by creative thinkers who plan well ahead, make it a priority to effectively maintain the facility and grounds, and listen to staff and patrons when ideas for improvements are suggested.
Fair Board leader Mike Autio told commissioners that he welcomed closer links between the agencies and we’re delighted to encourage that. The fair needs to make headlines for the quality and variety of its activities, not for failings in its management.