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Board pulls plug on 2014 edition of SJ County Fair

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POSTED December 18, 2013 11:39 p.m.

There will be no Ferris Wheel at the San Joaquin County Fair in 2014.

That’s primarily because there won’t be a San Joaquin County Fair in 2014.

On Wednesday morning the organization’s board of directors voted to forego the 153-year-old fair for an entire calendar year after plummeting attendance, a lack of state funding and general disinterest forced them with a bleak budget outlook that by all accounts was irreversible.

The fiscal outlook has become especially dismal over the course of the last three years despite a massive advertising campaign to try and drum-up interest. The typical two-week event was split down to just a handful of days, and horse racing was separated from the rest of the fair and held at the end of the summer instead of the beginning.

“It’s frustrating because we try to put the best show that we possibly can and we’ve reached out and tried to advertise and do everything that we could to get people into the gates, but at the end the numbers didn’t justify the expenses,” said board president Joe Valente. “If we went into the fair this year it would be with a budget that’s $170,000 upside down and we just can’t do that. We can’t risk it.”

But high school ag students that have spent their four years raising livestock can rest easy – that portion of the fair, as well as the horse racing, will continue.

Valente said that the livestock program is something that’s near and dear to his heart and has been an instrumental part of his family’s history. He and all of his brothers showed animals at the fair when they were growing up. An independent commission formed by the board to investigate ways on improving the overall function of the fair essentially laid the template for the interim livestock program that will allow FFA and 4-H programs to continue.

Manteca High ag teacher Tristan Silva – who was part of that committee – said that even though students will still be able to show and sell their animals, the experience won’t be the same.

“I think that it’s going to have a huge impact on the students,” she said. “It just won’t be the same experience. When the fair isn’t going the vendors aren’t there and the atmosphere isn’t there – it’s just not the same thing.

“And there are still questions that we have. Not all of the ag students had animals that they wanted to show, but also exhibits and things that they wanted to enter – horse trailers that they built and were entered. We haven’t heard whether those things were going to continue. It’s a big question mark.”

At the end of the day, however, it all comes down to funding.

According to a statement released by the board on Wednesday, the drying up of state funding represented a $200,000 annual hit. Starting a year with a budget in the red meant that there would be too many uncertainties surrounding the ability to build a reserve, and could jeopardize the ability to operate the facility on a year-round basis – one of the things that Valente thinks that the temporary shutdown could avoid.

“The facilities are used quite regularly throughout the year,” he said. “And we can’t risk losing that. This isn’t the first time that the fair has been halted – in the early 1900s it was called off for about six years and the same thing happened during WWII. We’re planning on going back and figuring out what can be done and coming back in 2015 stronger and better than before.”

Retired Manteca High ag educator and former Manteca Unified trustee Ed Fichtner, however, doesn’t necessarily agree with the assessment.

As a regular attendee of the San Joaquin County Fair meetings since he retired, Fichtner said that it appears a “hostile” group will be the ones taking over the livestock program. And while he’s okay with a system where the students aren’t the ones holding the bag when the music stops, he doesn’t think that the matter was handled efficiently.

“I think this is something that could have been resolved a long time ago,” he said. “There has been a lot of feet dragging on this.”

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