Is the San Joaquin County Fair worth saving?
Can it be saved at its current location?
The San Joaquin County Fair Board posed the first question, but not the second when they sent hundreds of letters out to community members in a bid to get them to attend a
Sept. 23 meeting designed to set a course aimed at preventing the 153-year-old county fair from going down for the count.
The fairgrounds itself is financially viable thanks to year-round activities. The fair itself isn’t. It has lost money in six of the last seven years. Fair attendance has also plummeted from a high of 146,578 in 2007 (when it lost $22,000) to 65,000 this year (when it lost $15,293). The fair no longer has a reserve to draw on to cover losses.
You can do all the tinkering you want with marketing, the livestock portion, exhibits, and entertainment but at the end of the day its location, location, location.
The Stanislaus County in Turlock is located on Fulkreth Avenue, a busy and safe commercial thoroughfare easy to reach from Highway 99.
You don’t feel as if you have to lock your doors and roll up your windows on your way there. Nor do you feel nervous at a red light. That’s in the daytime. After dark, traveling to or from the San Joaquin County Fair in South Stockton has all of the perceived charm of driving through Kabul.
That is not meant to be anti-Stockton. However, I can easily come up with two dozen folks I know who live in newer parts of Stockton who won’t go to the fair because of where it is located. Stockton doesn’t embrace the county fair the way that Turlock does.
This is particularly disheartening since agricultural district fairs were launched 150 plus years ago to showcase a community’s bounty.
If you want to educate the people of San Joaquin County today about what the county has to offer through its communities and fields the best place to do that is at Weberstown Mall. But even then you’d run the risk of not getting very many folks from the South County who have a tendency to chose Modesto over Stockton. That underscores an even bigger problem of Stockton failing to sell itself well to folks living in Manteca, Tracy, Lathrop, and Ripon. You could argue the cultural and entertainment opportunities in Stockton are better than in Modesto and the shopping is on par but that doesn’t do much to chip away at decades of both perception and reality.
What ails the San Joaquin County Fair is what ails Stockton as a whole. Both have allowed their image to be dictated by the dregs of society. I do most of my out-of-town shopping in Stockton. That is an abnormality for folks living south of French Camp Road. Choosing between Modesto and Stockton is akin to choosing between spending a day in San Francisco or Oakland. People in the South County perceive Stockton to be the Oakland of the valley.
Actually, if you strip away the crime element and blight there are a lot of impressive cultural things, dining, and entertainment to be found both in Oakland and Stockton. But the narrative escaped Stockton’s leaders a long time ago. The national beating they are taking for filling for bankruptcy is just more of the same. It isn’t fair but it is what things are.
There are good folks running the fair. The problem is even Lee Iacocca in his prime couldn’t have sold people on attending a fair in what many perceive to be in the middle of a cesspool.
The cesspool designation isn’t 100 percent fair. South Stockton isn’t as bad as it is made out but it also isn’t exactly a place you’d let your kids ride a bicycle through. That comfort level is essential since the fair’s targeted audience is families and not gangs.
And let’s not pull punches.
Horse racing fans and fair attendees are not one in the same. Sure some fairgoers will wander over to the race track when horse racing is run concurrently. But they aren’t the bread and butter of the folks who rely on betting.
The livestock exhibits are a great way to connect urban folks with farm folks. There is a rich tradition entailed in the livestock portion of the fair for both city and farm kids.
Given the fact San Joaquin County is the seventh-largest county in terms of farm production in the nation’s richest agricultural producing state, the SJ Fair should be thriving. Agriculture also happens to be the county’s No. 1 employer by a long shot.
But then again, most of Stockton seems disconnected from those two hard-to-ignore facts unlike their counterparts in Bakersfield, Modesto, and Fresno.
So is the fair worth saving?
Can it be saved in its present location?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 249-3519.