COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Ella Terry of Centreville participates in the kids’ pedal pull competition Saturday at the St. Joseph County Fair. The pedal pulls were one of the final events at the free stage on the last day of the fair.COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Travis McGahn (left), a firefighter with the Three Rivers Fire Department, digs into a chocolate pie during the annual charity pie eating contest at the St. Joseph County Fair Saturday, as Rich Ultz from the Burr Oak Fire Department (right) gauges his competitor’s progress. McGahn won the event, which also helped to raise funds for local fire departments to get automatic CPR machines.

2021 County Fair: some successes, notable challenges

CENTREVILLE — To say the 2021 St. Joseph County Fair faced some ups and downs throughout the week last week would be a little bit of an understatement.

While the first couple of days of the festival started out fine, according to organizers, rainy and chilly conditions in the middle of the week seemed to depress turnout, while improving conditions brought a massive swarm of people to the grounds on Friday and Saturday – enough to cause traffic backups on M-86 all the way past Centreville-Constantine Road to the west and past Shimmel Road to the east Friday night. Add in patron complaints of long lines at the limited number of gates late in the week and a lack of vendors throughout the week, and to some, this year’s fair could be seen as a bit of a mixed bag.

Despite the weather and logistical issues, St. Joseph County Fair Board member Kristine Kirsch said they thought they had a “good fair” this year.

“I think we had a good fair, considering we were coming off a year hiatus and the weather challenges,” Kirsch said. “When you look at last Sunday, Monday, the fairgrounds were busy. Tuesday was busy up until the rain came in, and Wednesday and Thursday, we don't want to talk about that. Friday and Saturday was packed and we had nice weather. It was a bit cool, but we still had nice weather.”

Exact attendance figures for the fair were not available as of press time, but Fair Board member Mindy Timm said there were “really nice crowds on the days we had nice weather,” and that people still attended on the days where weather was an issue.

“We had pretty much three days of rain, and that was a really big factor for us. Sometimes Mother Nature is on your side, and sometimes it’s not,” Timm said. “We still had people on the midway that came out and rode rides during the rain.”

There were still a few highlights for this year’s fair, the first since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both Kirsch and Timm noted the success of the Diamond Rio concert, which sold 1,800 tickets for the final night of the fair Saturday, as well as the success of many of the other grandstand events, including the NTPA Modified Truck & Tractor Pulls and the Xtreme Roughstock Rodeo. However, due to weather and track conditions, the fair couldn’t run the Bump-N-Run/Demolition Derby or Combine Derby scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday respectively, which Kirsch said the fair hopes to bring back next year.

Outside the grandstand, a new mechanical bull attraction near the Community Tent was reportedly well-attended, Community Tent and Free Stage events saw good turnout, and Luau Logan’s Tro-PIG-al Revue also drew decent-sized crowds.

“Luau Logan felt his crowds were really good, except the days it was really raining,” Kirsch said. “The afternoon and evening shows were good, but the later show, that got a little sparse. But he said the days it was sunny and not raining, he had a good crowd.”

However, despite those relative successes, some of the biggest complaints from patrons, mainly on social media, had to do with the traffic situation and lack of vendors in some of the barns.

The fair, which normally has multiple walk-in gates, including on Burr Oak Street and Nottawa Street, went down to only one walk-in gate this year, located off Franklin Street near the First Aid station, which appeared to be a contributing factor to the gate congestion Friday. Kirsch estimated that wait times to get in Friday night were between 45 minutes and an hour, with some on social media estimating it took them two hours to get in.

Kirsch and Timm chalked up the lack of walk-in gates for patrons, and the choice to not open up a second walk-in gate, to the lack of something else – staffing.

“We went down to one walk-in because we couldn't get staffing. We couldn't get staffing to man it and we couldn't get police officers, because there's a shortage out there of both workers and police officers,” Kirsch said.

Kirsch said at one point, they had eight ticket takers at the one walk-in gate, the ticket-takers mainly being fair board members and “all sorts of people” to try to help get patrons in quicker. Timm said there wasn’t necessarily consideration on opening another walk-in gate on Friday, but said they had people out on M-86 directing traffic and closing the fair office to have workers there help try to get people in the gate as quickly as possible.

Another reason Timm gave for the lack of additional walk-in gates were because the other locations of the walk-in gates didn’t have anything noteworthy. She mentioned the Nottawa Street walk-in gate, which she noted had “nothing” down in that area.

“There’s really not a reason to pull people [into the Nottawa Street gate] to walk further into the fairgrounds, because there’s nothing down at that end of the fair anymore,” Timm said. “The Franklin Street gate we did open up was more centrally located out of the two walk-in gates.”

Timm said the fair board will look into how many gates are open in future years to see how to make foot traffic flow easier.

As for the lack of vendors in the barns, Timm said the barns were 75 percent full, but there were multiple vendors that didn’t show up for various reasons.

“We had some people that had family issues, COVID issues, that didn’t show up, but we had 75 percent of the buildings all full,” Timm said, adding they hope to get some of the vendors back for the 2022 edition.

There was also some mixed reaction to the new layout of the midway rides and attractions, which were operated by Skerbeck Entertainment Group, the fair’s new midway company.

“We had some that were like, we like Kiddie Land way down there, but we also had a lot of people that were like, it was kind of nice and I could be in the general area and watch all my kids. They also liked there was a lot of seating,” Kirsch said. “There was the same amount of rides as there were two years ago, but it was a smaller footprint.”

Timm said the fair received a lot of feedback regarding the midway layout, and will take the feedback into consideration for future years.

“We as a board are going to look at all the different feedback from people about different things, including where Kiddie Land should or shouldn’t be,” Timm said. “We’ll talk to the ride company about what worked and didn’t work for them and reassess for next year.”

Looking ahead to next year, Kirsch said the fair hopes to get more workers to help out, as well as get their normal amount of vendors back. The biggest improvement she hopes gets made, however, is improvements to the internet connection and Wi-Fi at the fairgrounds.

“People who bought tickets in the past year and had them on their phone, it was difficult for their phones to work when they came into our fairgrounds,” Kirsch said. “The businesses run on phones, we take credit cards and do stuff, and we don't have the capacity to even begin to help them on that.”

Overall, Timm said the fair organizers were thankful to have a fair this year, and that despite the numerous challenges they did fine.

“I felt it went really good with all the challenges that we faced, and we as a board did really, really well with making decisions and deciding on fair first and what would be best for the fair, the county, and the people coming to the fair,” Timm said. “Our goal is to keep the fair around for years to come. It’s a big staple in the community that we want to keep it around.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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