OGDEN — County fairs, says Jennifer Graham, are something special and unique.
“The fair food, the odd stuff you can see at a county fair, do at a county fair,” said Graham, who, as assistant director of the Weber County Parks and Recreation Office, helps organize the annual Weber County Fair. “To be able to keep some of that alive, it’s fun.”
But it can be a challenge, keeping up with evolving tastes and figuring out what it takes to get the public — urban and rural — to visit the fairgrounds facilities. This go-round, as always, she and other fair organizers are hoping to bolster attendance, which reached 46,278 in 2017, down from a high of 58,730 in 2013. The fair kicked off on Wednesday and goes through Saturday.
“We’re always trying to beat last year’s numbers,” she said.
Graham’s putting her hopes, in part, on ultimate frisbee and softball tournaments, estimating they may draw 3,700 to 4,000 additional people, counting participants and the family members and friends who tag along. At the same time, she’s got to be mindful of unexpected weather flare-ups — storms or extreme heat — that can keep people away.
Either way, the fair comes with a price tag to taxpayers, has so at least since 2010. The fair cost the county $47,088 in 2010, subtracting fair revenues from expenses, and the cost has edged upward ever since, reaching $112,305 in 2017, according to county figures.
The loss of a $20,000 grant that helped cover entertainment costs in 2016 factored in a bump in the price tag in 2017.
County Commissioner Jim Harvey, though, former manager of the Golden Spike Event Center at the fairgrounds and a big fair booster, sees plenty of value in the fair. He calls it the “biggest little hometown celebration.”
With the focus on the county’s agricultural sector, it gives city kids a chance to learn more about where food comes from.
“We try to teach them that milk doesn’t come from a grocery store. It comes from a cow,” he joked.
He also singled out the draft horses and, most enthusiastically, the junior livestock program, which gives youth a chance to demonstrate their ability to raise farm animals and earn money from the sale of the critters. The program’s auction generated $570,000 in sales in 2017, most of that going into the pockets of the participating kids and teens.
Graham, meanwhile, underscoring the importance of trying to appeal to the varied sectors in the community, said fair organizers have to be mindful of what’s on the “cutting edge” to draw new visitors. “And that can be a challenge,” she said.
ENTERTAINERS, CARNIVAL RIDES
The fair this year features pig races, mixed martial arts fighting, a petting zoo, a demolition derby, a rodeo and more, but one of the most common questions put to Jan Wilson, who helps organize the event, relates to the musical headliners who perform each year. This year’s featured entertainer is country singer William Michael Morgan, who plays on Friday.
Because so many more performance venues have opened in Utah, it’s tougher and tougher for the fair to draw top names, who charge more and more, which requires a minimum number of seats to be able to recoup costs via ticket sales.
Morgan is costing the county $12,500, Wilson said, while singer Willie Nelson, by contrast, who performed at the fair in 2003, now charges a minimum of $1 million.
Another challenge has been finding a carnival company that’ll bring rides and a midway to the fair. So many fairs occur in August and September, Wilson said, “that trying to break into that market has been more difficult than anyone would expect.”
Still, the Weber County Fair, in terms of attendance, ranks among the top county fairs in Utah. According to estimates posted on the Utah Association of Fairs and Events website, the Box Elder and Uintah county fairs drew 75,000 and 65,000 visitors last year. Next came the Weber, Cache, Utah, Davis and Washington county fairs, which each drew between 40,000 and 50,0000 people.
Harvey, meeting last Monday with leaders from around the county, made a plea for them to attend, but he hopes for people from across the county to take part as well.
“We want you to see what is happening in the county, what is happening at the celebration,” he said.