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Sonoma County Fair to start in August, cut four days from schedule


In an effort to save money and maximize revenue, the Sonoma County Fair this year will start later and cut four days from its schedule, shifting to an 11-day run entirely in August, with horse racing continuing one weekend longer.

While the fair will be shorter than in the recent past, for the first time in several years, it will kick off the same day as horse racing on Aug. 3, raising the attendance prospects for both areas when the annual summertime event gets under way, officials said.

The schedule changes come amid continued challenges for the horse racing industry, which makes up 16 percent of the fairgrounds’ revenue but factored in a decline in paid attendance to last year’s fair.

This year’s county fair will run through Aug. 13 and racing will return the following weekend as well, ending Aug. 20.

The shortened fair schedule was unveiled last week at the Board of Supervisors, which adopted a $10.8 million annual budget for the fairgrounds.

The change corresponds with a disputed shift last year in the horse racing schedule for 2017. Over local objections, the state Horse Racing Board gave the Sonoma County Fair the first three weeks of August, one week later than last year.

That later run is seen as less favorable for business because it overlaps with the usual start of the school calendar, meaning families would be more likely to stay home.

But officials said their plan for a shortened fair is not expected to further dampen paid attendance.

“Financially, we will do as well in just 11 days as we would with 15,” said Becky Bartling, chief executive officer of the Sonoma County Fair. “We weren’t at the level of a fair that really needed to be a 15-day fair. When it’s all said and done, this 11-day fair is going to maximize attendance and revenues and really cut costs.”

The 2016 fair ran 15 days, from July 22 through Aug. 7.

Primarily because of attendance at horse races, paid attendance at the 2016 fair dropped 1.2 percent to nearly 175,000 people. Total attendance, which includes thousands of people admitted free of charge, rose 2 percent year over year, fair officials said.

Nationwide, betting on horse races has fallen substantially as legal casinos have proliferated and interest in track-side action has waned. Wagering on horse racing in the United States in 2015 was about $10.7 billion, up from the previous year but down substantially from a high in 2003 of about $15.2 billion, according to the Jockey Club.

“This isn’t just unique to Sonoma County,” Bartling said. “I’ve looked at the type of programming that we’ve been doing and enhancing programming that’s above and beyond horse racing … It’s still a significant part of our fair, but we have to look forward to a continued decline, unfortunately.”

Additional programming in store this year will include a craft beer festival and more free concerts, Bartling said.

Pushing the start date back meant the fair had to switch carnival operators, because the previous operator had another commitment in August. Bartling said the new operator, Butler Amusements, would add several “more spectacular” rides to the fair, describing them as attractions that could be “rated on the nausea factor” and would be popular with thrill-seeking children.

The budget adopted last Tuesday by supervisors, which was approved in November by the fair’s board of directors, marked an increase of about $1 million, or about 11 percent, from 2016, officials said.

Part of the growth came from salaries and benefits, which rose $156,000 largely because of employees’ gains at the bargaining table and an increase in the minimum wage affecting seasonal employees. An additional $282,000 for services and supplies also was budgeted to deal with increased rental activity at the fairgrounds and higher fair entertainment costs, among other initiatives. The capital expenditures budget rose $864,000 as well, but much of that is funded by grants and private parties, officials said.

Supervisors last week had mostly positive comments about the status of the fair, with some critiques from Supervisor Shirlee Zane, board chairwoman. Zane said that while the fair had improved financially, she had serious concerns about the impact to neighbors of the fairgrounds from the Emerald Cup last year.

Zane, whose district includes the neighborhood, said her office fielded dozens of complaints from neighbors regarding attendees of the large marijuana festival who allegedly parked on residents’ driveways, left trash behind and caused other problems, she said.

“It was awful, and quite frankly, if events like the Emerald Cup are going to keep on coming back to the fairgrounds, then it is up to the (fair) board and the staff to properly mitigate the concerns with sufficient security, sufficient cleanup and that didn’t happen this year,” Zane said in an interview. “They should be passing those charges on and hiring the Santa Rosa Police Department or the Sheriff’s deputies for additional security.”

Bartling agreed with Zane’s concerns and said she had a productive meeting with organizers about the issues, which reportedly stemmed in large part from a parking lot closed because of rain. Zane asked Bartling to come back to her at a later date with a plan for helping prevent similar problems in the future.