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Heat melts Josephine fair attendance

It was the afternoon of Aug. 19, and a juggling act was about to go on at the Josephine County Fair.

Fairgrounds Manager Peggy Anderson told the performer he didn't have to go on. It was just too hot.

"He says, 'No, I have people out there,' " Anderson recalled, and the show went on. "That's why I contract with those kind of people. They were all like that."

But the show went on at this year's fair with about 23,000 fewer people than last year's fair. The estimated numbers were as brutal as last Friday's record-high of 111 degrees: 54,000 attended this year's fair, down from last year's attendance of 77,000, a 30 percent drop.

Consequently, it's looking like a lean year ahead for a self-sustaining operation that has one full-time employee, Anderson, who is in her first year on the job after several years of managing the Umatilla County fairgrounds.

"The good news is we do other things than just the fair," Anderson said Tuesday, referring to other events that bring in income, including the rental of buildings. "We're going to have to look at expenses really hard. That's significant."

The fairgrounds annual budget is just a bit over $700,000, and the financial hit from this year's attendance drop might exceed $100,000, which is cause for concern.

The heat and low attendance were hard on vendors, too. When vendors and the carnival take hits, so does the fairgrounds, which gets a cut of sales. Saturday's 4-H, FFA livestock auction did well, however, taking in $25,000 more than last year, and topping $400,000. But that was for the kids.

There were a lot of other pluses, too. The grandstands were full Friday and Saturday evenings, as usual, for Tuff Trucks and Monster Trucks. Even opening day got off to a good start — revenue was up nearly a third, compared with opening day last year, Anderson said.

But Wednesday's 95 degrees was the cool day of the four-day fair, with high temperatures reaching 109, 111 and 106 in the next three days.

Five fairgoers were seen by medics for heat-related medical conditions. One went to the hospital.

Anderson and her assistants had prepared well, but they were done in by the heat, according to Dan Shepard, chairman of the Fair Board.

"I think all the planning and stuff was done," Shepard said. "The weatherman didn't want to cooperate. That hurt."

Shepard was one of many volunteers who endured the heat to put on the show. He drove a parking lot shuttle.

"I was out there working," Shepard continued. "It wasn't pleasant. If I wasn't involved in it, you probably wouldn't have seen me."

He agreed it was going to be a lean year ahead.

"We live on the edge," he said.

County Commissioner Keith Heck, who is the Board of Commissioners' liaison to the fairgrounds, also drove a shuttle for four hours one hot afternoon during the fair.

"It was wonderful to see everything so well-prepared and well-staffed," Heck said. "All the preparations were done. I'm disappointed more people couldn't have come out."

Moving the fair to a different time of year would be complicated, and would involve "so many meshing wheels," Heck said.

He predicted that the fair — which was close to folding just a few years ago — would continue, despite the county's continued financial troubles, which leaves the fairgrounds to fend for itself without the help of taxpayer money.

"We'll make it work," Heck said. "They've lived within a budget. They'll have to continue to. It doesn't mean the whole fair will fold up and go away."