Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Coles County Fail

Today we visited the Coles County Fair Fail. Now I have been to some sad and dilapidated fairs in my time, but this reaches a whole new level of pathetic. Allow me to set the stage a bit: some decades ago, when I was a wee little tadling, this fair was the big event of the summer, a bright and lively event that everyone went to because it was full of fun stuff to do. Today, one of the gates was open, but very little else was. So now, it's not sufficient to check the hours the fair is open, you have to check the hours of individual things inside to determine whether it is actually active. Today it wasn't. And this is the first weekday of the fair; Monday-Tuesday used to be the busiest weekdays when all the animal shows happened. We walked in and it was just dead. O_O We literally wondered if we had misread the signs and come in when it was exhibitors-only, except that this was after noon on the first weekday. Turns out, the fair has been cut back so much that the midway and other stuff didn't even open until 4:00. What the fuck even. >_< Total score: 3/10, and I was going to give it a 2 before my partner Doug talked it up a point on grounds of some partial successes.

Thumbs Up:

Kudos to the extremely few food/beverage vendors who actually showed to work. American Grill served excellent corn dogs, bratwurst, and funnel cake. Big Al's had tasty shake-ups in lime, orange, lemon, and strawberry; of which we got lime and strawberry. If anyone is attending the fair, I strongly encourage you to eat there to support people with a good work ethic, as opposed to the many others who couldn't be arsed to show up before late afternoon.

Also the two guys eating in the pavilion who pointed us toward the open food booths. I spotted them after walking past several closed food booths and said, "I'm not hiking all over this graveyard looking for food, I'm asking the people who have it." They cheerfully directed us to the two places we visited and one other that was doing burgers.

The 4-H building was open with projects on display. Not very impressive woodworking this year, good photography and gardening, some lovely sewing, and a truly epic welding project: a large iron grate for a big fireplace or firepit with interlocking bars. Well deserved champion going to state fair, as it's about as sturdy a build as you can do without a forge and the skill to weave wrought iron over-and-under. Particularly sweet: a black family was staffing the information booth. In my 4-H time, we always had a tiny bit of diversity but never could talk any of them into sitting table. So that was just awesome to see. \o/

Pheasants Forever is my favorite hunting-conservation organization. They teach people how to take good care of game birds and their habitat -- there's a Quails Forever branch too. :D They also sell forage seed so you can till a few acres, plant fodder for your wild birds, and then when hunting season opens, bang-bang-bang you have meat for the winter. \o/ There's a household not far from us that has about 2-3 acres sowed in game forage, with a couple hunting lean-tos at opposite corners, probably using seed from PF. A unique advantage of this group is its status as a bridger. The dual focus, hunting and conservation, discourages extremists so it's not all gun nuts or nature nazis; it's a place where moderate folks can meet to enjoy a bit of common ground. They don't always man their booth, often it's just the handouts as it was today, but they had a new one: No Child Left Indoors. It has branches for youth gun safety, conservation, and leadership. In a time when Nature Deficit Disorder is a serious and growing problem, we really need things like this to get people outdoors.

The weather was decent, mid-80s and slightly cloudy. That's cool enough to enjoy a quick trip without melting in the heat, although not as nice as the unseasonably cool weather earlier. It's better than it has been the last several years though.

Thumbs Down:

The midway didn't open until 4 PM. FAAAAIIIIIIL.

Neither did the auxiliary entertainment track: all the puppeteers, storytellers, buskers, balloon dudes, etc. who set up in the interstices between the midway and other main attractions. The only hint of any such presence was the Bible puppet show that had its benches and truck there, but no people and no schedule of shows. >_< FAAAAAIIIIIIL.

The Ag/Crafts barn alleged to be open but was in fact closed. FAAAAAIIIIIIL.

The swag barn. I could just about cry. It was open. Sort of. In a building that once held dozens of booths around the perimeter and crammed into the center if necessary, there were 8 tables with stuff on them: The Democrats, the Republicans, two tractor places, two churches, the Fire Department, and Pheasants Forever. Only 3 were manned: the Democrats and the churches. The Republicans didn't show up for work. Surprise, surprise. :P Conspicuously and worryingly absent was the big pro-life booth with the creepy Christians. Yes, they're a pain in the neck, but they're our pain in the neck. When they're not there annoying people, it makes me wonder if they're okay. :( The Fire Department had an ATV raffle but no safety information. None of the cops or medics were even there. Useful items of swag: 0. In the entire building, there was literally not one thing of any practical use, other than display models. No pens, pencils, emery boards, scratchpads, magnets, paper fans, plastic bags. NOTHING. The Democrats had some buttons to give away. Everything else was all literature. Items picked up: 1. The only thing in the building worth taking was the No Child Left Indoors flyer from Pheasants Forever. (I already have their other excellent handouts that are of interest to me; their display was as good as ever.) That is by far the lowest takehome I've ever had from a swag run. What a disgrace. FAAAAAIIIIILLLLLL.

The animal barns were open and active with participants but no audience. I usually like to visit these, but after eating we were rather warm and it just didn't seem worth the bother when the rest of the event was so lame. This is not helped by the fact that the north gate was closed, so we didn't enter and leave through the barns, but rather had to come in the east gate along the midway, making the barns out of the way to visit. Now I am not a participant, but I was in 4-H with all the farmkids and back then it was mobbed. Because the animal shows were cool. Now imagine working your ass off for months on a beef calf or suckling pig or shearling lamb, and you get to the big show at the county fair ... and nobody's there except your parents and your friends' parents that you see every month. I would expect that to be very disappointing. Kids were there working their animals, but they weren't romping around smiling and excited like I remember. So although I am not in the most affected group here, I know enough about it to call sympathetic fail.

The crowd. What crowd? Okay, I don't actually like it when the fair is uncomfortably packed and noisy; it's why we often go midday. But there was almost nobody there walking around. Just people manning the few open booths, and owners of farm animals on display. That means little if any opportunity to gauge the happiness level of the community, exchange casual conversation with strangers, maybe make a new friend or find someone to hook up with, etc. Useless as a social occasion. Fail.

Causes and Conclusions:

Illinois hasn't had a state budget in several years, which has destroyed or decimated many public events. Social ties are eroding. The Coles County Fair has been losing quality for years. After thoughtful discussion, Doug and I concluded that they're having the "bus problem." That is, it's not very profitable, so they cut services to save money, and because it's even less appealing to people, fewer folks show up, so they cut more stuff. Let me tell you, everyone who went there today will be less likely to go back next year. >_< Including me, and I've been going for most of my life, less the years we lived elsewhere.

I love a good fair, okay? But this wasn't a good fair, it was damn depressing. The only reasons it was not a total disappointment: 1) Our main goal was the food, which we eventually located and was good. 2) I can use it as a bad example. It's my new low-water mark for lousy public events, sinking community spirit, and lack of work ethic. Which is a sad but accurate reflection of life in America today. :( Well, at least it didn't cost us anything to get in.

*grumble* The Terramagne version probably has bedsheet Twister and chess going in the shade, and water fights in the sun, and a facepainter doing flags of the world for a buck to benefit refugees, and a firefighter teaching campfire safety with free s'mores to anyone who can pass the quiz afterwards.

This fair simply doesn't compete well against the state fairs, or even the Warrensburg Corn Festival.

So let's take a quick little peek at what Warrensburg did differently. It wasn't a big event; they didn't try to overreach their crowd call. They clearly didn't spend a ton of money on it, and what they spent was very well chosen: a handful of carnival rides, porta-potties, and free t-shirts. They didn't lard it with expensive entertainment, too many rentables, wallpapered advertisements, or other bloat. What they did instead was capitalize on two things: people with stuff to sell, and community spirit. They had a handful of miscellaneous vendors and slightly more food/beverage vendors. Then they had tables from local organizations doing fundraisers, information, or other stuff. One singer and one live band; I don't know if they were paid or volunteer, could go either way in this context. (If paid, the town certainly got its money's worth.) Finally they had communal stuff like the cornhole tournament and BBQ competition, and that's just what was on when we were there. All very good ways to use a modest budget to put on a very engaging event. Look, you don't have to spend wads of money to have a fair. You just need to get people's attention with fun stuff. It's important to have free things to do, and give people incentive to interact with each other. It doesn't have to cost either the planners or the attendees an arm and a leg to have a good time.

Also compare with the state fair when I visited as a kid, times we were there for an actual event like the pom-pom girls Mom coached a few years, so we had to show up like half an hour before it opened to the public. The rule was, all the service stuff had to open when the participant gate opened: food/beverage vendors, potties, offices and other function space, etc. The attractions -- midway, vendors, entertainers, etc. -- had to open when the public gates opened. Granted it took a few hours to get at all busy, but it was worth seeing in the morning and by lunchtime was hopping pretty well, even though it didn't get roaring until dusk and by then was more than I really wanted to handle. That always struck me as a very sensible arrangement, get the crucial stuff open first and then the amusements, but don't leave people standing around with nothing to do. Crucial tip: if you have to leave your table, then cover it, unless it's mainly there to dispense flyers and/or swag but doesn't actually need staff. Otherwise it makes you look like a slacker, which if people can see your name on the table is worse than not being there at all. That empty Republican table with the Democrats on duty across the aisle? That's never going to stop being funny. Better to laugh at it than cry over it, at least.

Honestly if I get to anybody's good street fair earlier in the summer -- there are actually several in central Illinois worth hitting if we have time -- I'm less inclined to bother with the Coles County Fair shortly afterwards.

However, I will say that I'd rather have a perfect day and a crummy day at the fair, than two average days at the fair. For all this one was a flop, the other one more than made up for it, and gave me many fine ideas on how to run a public event. This one gave me many fine ideas on how not to.
Tags: event, illinois, personal
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