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The charm of South Stockton is killing the SJ County Fair

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POSTED December 20, 2013 12:35 a.m.

There’s no nice way to say this.

What ails the San Joaquin County Fair is South Stockton.

At the end of the day, the target clientele of county fairs is families. And South Stockton isn’t exactly on the Top 10 list of family friendly locations.

Guilt by association isn’t fair. But it is the reality.

Talk to people. Ask them why they don’t go to the fair. If they hem and haw, ask the question: Is it the location? The answer is almost always “yes.”

But it just not the location per se. Getting there isn’t exactly a scenic drive either.

People admit that they make sure their doors are locked driving Charter Way from Highway 99 or Airport Way up from Manteca.

The extensive graffiti unnerves them. The general rundown condition of the surrounding neighborhood makes them weary. It is a place that many say they would never travel at night.

Crime isn’t as bad as in other places such as Oakland. But telling the world “We’re Not Oakland” isn’t exactly a chamber of commerce-style slogan that will get much traction.

Some may argue reacting to what they see is prejudicial. But let’s face it. What people fear can overpower tons of positives.

If they think that going to the San Joaquin County Fair has all the charm of traveling through war-torn Beirut to reach a festival it’s going to have a negative impact on attendance.

County fairs aren’t passé. Stanislaus County Fair is a success. The Alameda County Fair is a success. A lot of county fairs are still chugging along in this age of high tech. All county fairs — including San Joaquin County’s version — offer much the same mixture of entertainment, events, competitions, carnivals, and exhibits.

What sets other fairs apart in places such as Turlock, Pleasanton, Roseville, and Sonora to name a few is the locale. They are not located in the most rundown sections of their respective counties.

Is it fair that the San Joaquin County Fair suffers because of its location? No. Very few crimes over the years have been committed against fairgoers by the criminal element that inhabits the surrounding neighborhoods. The most egregious was a bizarre attack in the 1990s when hoodlums entered the fairgrounds after hours and killed a pig being exhibited by using a pitch fork. Crimes against fairgoers even en route or going home aren’t probably any higher than they are with patrons at other county fairs.

Many of Stockton’s wounds are self inflicted. That coupled with a bad rap gives people pause.

Personally, I prefer Stockton over Modesto hands down. And you can also rest assured that Modesto has neighborhoods that you would not be comfortable traveling through. But the big difference is there aren’t fairgrounds in such neighborhoods in Modesto. There is, however,  fairgrounds in the heart of the least desirable part of Stockton.

So what should happen to the San Joaquin County Fair? Its location isn’t a hindrance for horse racing, off-track betting, or motor sports racing. Nor is it an albatross when it comes to agriculture-related activities whether it is the junior livestock competition and show tied in with the actual fair or the annual farm equipment show.

There are two possible solutions.

One answer is simple and expensive: The traditional county fair needs a new home.

Stockton isn’t exactly embracing the fair. It hasn’t for years. It drew just 65,000 people last year in a city of 297,000 residents.

But even if a new fairgrounds was built, the problem of sustainability exists for a new location as well. The fairgrounds that proposer the best have extensive year-round use for commercial shows and rentals to non-profits and events such as weddings. The facility rental market while not saturated isn’t exactly large enough to justify such a major investment.

The other solution is to go back to the roots of county fairs in California.

They were once more festivals than anything else providing a chance to showcase local agricultural products. That would mean no midway. It would also mean the fair would have to be a low-key affair with no big entertainment splurges and such. Essentially it would be a livestock show with some local exhibits.

But could such a move be sustainable enough to be more than a glorified street fair? Probably not judging by the number of people who attend fairs and the number of those folks who end up wandering through livestock areas and exhibit halls.

Essentially both solutions have major pitfalls — a lot of money upfront either to duplicate facilities elsewhere or the issue of long-range financial support from attendance.

That given until such time as a major urban renewal effort completely transforms South Stockton, the course the fair board is now embarking upon might be the best long-term solution: Kill the traditional fair, let the livestock portion continue, and keep the other functions ranging from horse racing and motor sports racing to off track betting and hall rentals going.

The death of the fair isn’t really the fair board’s fault. The problem is they are caught between a rock in the form of South Stockton and a hard place in the form of public perception.



This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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