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They came, they rode, they ate — a lot

CENTRAL POINT — Helen Funk's first crack at running the Jackson County Fair went so well she's already counting down the days to the 2016 fair.

Feedback from social media, animal handlers, food and drink vendors, as well as carnival operators, bolstered the notion the county fair is on the right track — something that has been hotly debated in recent years.

Even with the traditional Tuesday opening jettisoned, the Wednesday-through-Sunday affair drew nearly 81,000 people. It also produced the first million-dollar auction payout in the 4-H and Future Farmers of America beef and goat Junior Livestock Auction.

"We might have been a little slow the first hour on Wednesday," Funk said. "But after that, everything stayed busy; there wasn't really a down time. We had people flowing through the whole time."

Although Funk isn't sure what metrics were used in past fair attendance reports, she was confident the average daily attendance exceeded recent figures.

Thanks to lower temperatures than at the past couple of fairs, attendance was roughly even with last year, exceeding the 78,000 reported two years ago and not far off from the 85,000 figure in 2012, despite one fewer day.

The final receipts have yet to be tallied, but from gate counts and concert attendance to vendor sales and animal auction figures, the numbers told as good of a story as Funk could have hoped, she said. Average daily attendance grew 20 percent, but with the variety of exhibitor, sponsor and discount passes, it's easy to inflate numbers, she said.

"I'd like to do it like the rodeo," Funk said. "I don't care how many tickets they gave out, I want to know how many bodies came across the gate. People who we sold rides and sold drinks to."

Funk was appointed interim Expo director in January, and the "interim" aspect was discarded on July 1, three weeks before opening day.

Vendors reported sales were up 85 percent from 2014, including a Sunday surge that saw food sales more than double sales the final day last year.

"Sunday was the most impressive, with food sales up 131 percent from last year," she said. "That's a massive number and probably had to do with the attendance, because we had 21,000 people on the grounds."

Ron Anderson, chairman of the 4-H Junior Livestock Committee and a former Fair Board member, was as pleased as anyone to see the activity level and turnout, not to mention the $1.125 million raised at the animal auction.

"Two years ago was the worst fair ever, it was terrible as far as attendance," Anderson said. "The Fair Board and management chose not to have entertainment, and without entertainment you're not going to have anybody there."

He credited Friends of the Fair Foundation for financing this year's acts.

"They were a big draw," Anderson said. "Once they're there, they spend money on whatever else is at the fair. If the entertainment is good, they'll come at the first of the week and come back before it's over."

Anderson said the business community has long supported the animal auction in good times and bad.

"When times are tougher, sales are tougher," he said. "We've been close to breaking that million-dollar figure a lot of times. We knew someday that we'd go over it, and it happened in a year where we almost had less animals."

The 60 steers auctioned were the fewest since 1965, Anderson said.

"It costs a lot more to feed them, and calves are more spendy. It's also the project that requires the most financial commitment and time commitment."

More than 200 hogs, 170 lambs and 10 goats also were sold, along with a handful of rabbits and turkeys.

Something that wasn't sold this year was parking. Butler Automotive Groups paid $18,000 to provide free parking, and patrons took advantage, filling the lots.

Funk said patrons increasingly filled the reserved seating in the Lithia Amphitheater, with 1,100 seats sold for Theory of a Deadman on Thursday; 1,400 for 38 Special on Friday; and 1,600 for Brett Eldredge on Saturday.

General admission for the Saturday concert was cut off when the arena's 6,000-person capacity was reached, she said. 

Commercial vendors reported increased response this year as well, Funk said.

"Things usually start drying up around 4 (o'clock) Sunday afternoon, but we were selling tickets all the way to 6 p.m.," she said. "We kept things open an extra hour to make sure those people had a chance to get their carnival rides."

Fair Board President Chris Smith said attendance at the Wednesday bull-riding event likely will spur additional events, such as a demolition derby, in the future.

"We had a great carnival this year," Smith said. "When they were going full-bore, they were doing 10,000 rides an hour."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/EconomicEdge

Nearly 81,000 people attended the 2015 Jackson County Fair. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch