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As fair approaches, things looking up at The Expo

After a series of lean years brought on by the recession, The Expo — as it's now known — is becoming more self-sufficient heading into Fair Week, said longtime Fair Board member Leigh Johnson.

The final numbers from fiscal 2012 that ended two weeks ago aren't in, but the corner has been turned, said Johnson, a 17-year board member, including a previous 10-year stint as chairman, of the $2 million-plus Jackson County enterprise in Central Point.

"We have every reason to believe that the substantial moves we've made have put us in the black and operating at levels that are acceptable to the county commissioners," Johnson said. "It's taken a lot of work to get there, but our new Expo director (Dave Koellermeier) has helped move us in the right direction.

"We're beginning to see more events booked with better attendance. I think within another year or two, we'll be on very sound financial footing."

When the economy tanked, auto dealers and others who booked the 212-acre grounds began canceling shows and not reserving venues.

"The car shows were cut by two-thirds," Johnson said. "The revenue streams we lost just couldn't be replaced during a tough economy. You slowly have to build your way back, and now we're seeing more interest in car shows, RV shows, sports shows, home shows and horse shows. They're all gaining footing again."

With the county fair two days away, there are a lot of eyes on the gate.

Attendance always comes into play in measuring a particular fair's success. Only in the past 10 years has the attendance been based on tickets sold. Prior to that, anyone on the grounds was factored into attendance figures — much like NCAA football where even the players on the field are part of the head count. Once the state stopped providing a stipend to county fairs based on attendance and gave everyone an equal amount, a six-figure total was no longer a goal in itself.

"Those numbers can be difficult to count when you have a lot of people showing at the fair from 4-H and FFA groups," Johnson said. "But you can always identify paid attendance. If we could get 80,000 to 90,000 over five days, we'd be really, really happy."

When the Lithia Motors Amphitheater opened in 2005, the Fair Board anticipated it would host 12 to 15 major acts beyond the fair entertainment.

"It just hasn't happened," Johnson said. "At the time it opened, it should have come to fruition, then we started into this rough economy."

Britt gets big names and a few use the Compton Arena during the colder months, but the pond-front performance area lacks a critical element.

"We don't have a promoter, and venues like that need a promoter," Johnson said.

Promoters assume the risk but can also reap a big payday.

"They have the contacts and access to an over-abundance of entertainment," Johnson said. "They know how to put on a show and promote it."

Even if the Fair Board had the savvy of a promoter, one bad night could add up to trouble.

"We don't have the financial wherewithal to take a chance to promote a $200,000 to $250,000 concert and not have it work. Then we have to turn to someone to make up the money and that's the county, and the county doesn't have the money."

Population is an additional factor.

Adding the surrounding counties — Coos, Curry, Douglas, Josephine, Klamath, Siskiyou and even Shasta — it adds up to about 650,000 Johnson said.

"Right now promoters are concentrating efforts in metro areas with huge populations," he said. "You're talking Portland or San Francisco, Sacramento or Los Angeles. You need a pretty high profile name to get somebody to drive from Brookings or Yreka. Johnny and the Lugnuts aren't going to draw somebody from Redding unless it's a family member."

Horse events are becoming more plentiful and drawing participants from farther away.

"The premium horse shows are able to attract people not only from here but out of the area," Johnson said. "They bring large amounts of people to the area, who spend money on fuel, food and hotels. They spend their tourist dollars in a lot of different directions."

Bigger events are more desirable than smaller because scale brings better financial returns, Johnson said.

"We want to cater to anyone and everyone who lives here or who will come and visit us," he said. "We have thousands of people who come to the grounds for one use or another — concerts, horse shows, home shows — and we're keeping track now of people who come to events from more than 100 miles away and it's surprising how many there are."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.