GOSHEN — Though weather plays a big role in fair attendance, even with a few rough weather days, the 2012 Elkhart County 4-H Fair reflected a local economy that’s recovering.
Though final numbers won’t be in until Monday, “our attendance has been up this year a little bit,” said Jack Lengacher, Jr., president of the fair board this year. “I think that’s a real good indication of where our economy’s at. I look at our attendance as, this is the heart and soul of our businesses, the workers. People are feeling more confident,” Lengacher said Saturday, the final day of this year’s fair.
For the first three days of the nine-day event, attendance was as high as pre-recession numbers, but hot weather and rain slowed things down as the fair went on.
“Considering the weather, we’ve had a fabulous crowd,” said Robin Haag, executive director of the fair. Last year’s attendance was estimated at roughly 235,500 people, and Haag expects this year to wind up in the same neighborhood.
Vendors were seeing strong sales, and “overall it looks like we might be ever so slightly up,” said Tim Yoder, concessions director for the fair. “Economy-wise, I think when they’re out here they’re eating a lot,” he said.
Danny Huston, president of North American Midway Entertainment, said “our revenue’s up about two percent over last year,” with the Crazy Mouse roller coaster being the most popular ride and the new Vertigo ending up in the number three slot this year.
Friday’s 4-H auction didn’t break last year’s record of just over $967,000, but it didn’t fall far shy of it, either, at almost $932,000.
“Given that the market prices are down a little bit, we had a lot of generosity from the community,” said Jeff Burbrink, educator with the Purdue Cooperative Extension Office in the county. “We had a very, very good sale,” he said.
Renee Troyer Campbell, who oversees the auction for the fair, said, “I’m always impressed with the amount of community support we have.”
That support went deeper than normal this year. Last year the fair board more than doubled the size of the fairgrounds, buying the land to the east of the grounds for $1.4 million, and set out on a lofty campaign to raise the money within a year.
Between land-based fund-raising efforts during the fair, earlier fundraisers and private donations, the board is roughly $275,000 away from paying off the purchase, Lengacher said Saturday.
He credited Kelly Rose for helping spearhead fundraising efforts behind the scenes and those who’ve donated. “Elkhart County is just different,” he said. “We always step up.
“I think it’s a lot of our strong family upbringing we have, and our business leaders haven’t forgotten where they came from,” he said.
As the land purchase gets paid off, Haag said she believes the fair board will focus on using it to improve movement within the fairgrounds and access between the grounds and nearby roads. “People movement has to be a priority,” she said.
The weather threw different things at the fair this year, with a couple of days of sweltering heat and a couple of days with some storms, and the grandstands were evacuated twice during the fair.
“You always like to think your emergency plan works,” Lengacher said. “The state fair proved it can happen to anyone at any time,” he said, referring to the deadly stage collapse at last year’s Indiana State Fair.
Haag said, “because of being so alert about weather going into the fair and then having a couple of pop-up storms, it shows us we have taken good precautions. It showed us a couple of things to address, too. I think it was really a great learning experience because of preparedness,” she said.
Now that it’s done, Lengacher said the fair is a reminder of the committment of the community to its youths.
He’s watched the excitement, anticipation, apprehension and nervousness in the eyes of 4-Hers mirrored in the eyes of their parents, and he’s seen the bond between 4-H kids and their leaders. “What I’ve seen is the 4-H leaders are more mentors,” he said.
“It’s just been a very humbling experience to know I’ve been president of such a wonderful organization,” Lengacher said.