State fair needs private miracle
At its best, the state fair should be a celebration of all things Oregon, 11 days during which the state's citizens gather to reconnect with their roots and have some fun in the process.
It is a time of dizzying rides, a lot of livestock shows and fabulous photographic and crafts displays. And a person just might be able to find a thing or two to eat while there.
Since its beginning in 1858, Oregon's state fair has had many incarnations. It was started along the Clackamas River near Oregon City and moved to Salem in 1862.
Since then, it has survived catastrophic fires, economic ups and downs and a variety of other natural and manmade events. Its popularity peaked in the 1980s when more than 800,000 Oregonians attended the fair.
By the end of the 20th century, though, the fair's popularity had slipped. It began to lose money and its aging facilities needed to be rebuilt or replaced. Legislators poured money into it, but were unable to reinvigorate it.
In 2006, legislators put the fair in the hands of the state Department of Parks and Recreation, added a dab of lottery money and crossed their collective fingers in the hope that somehow managers there could pull off a miracle -- a fair that can support itself and generate enough money to maintain the buildings and grounds.
The department has figured out how to manage the 11-day fair, which now brings in $4.5 million a year and breaks even. But it hasn't been able to make money during the rest of the year. With more than 180 acres, the fairgrounds is full of opportunity and challenges. The opportunities lie in the urban setting, making it convenient for a huge portion of Oregon's population.
But the challenges are many. As a state agency, the parks department has had to follow bureaucratic contracting laws. Because those laws weren't written with state fairs in mind, managers have run into roadblock after roadblock as they sought sponsorships for buildings and events.
The other challenge is spelled P-A-V-I-L-I-O-N. The building was originally envisioned as a year-round events center that would more than pay for itself. But when it was built, no heating or air conditioning system was included, nor were locker rooms for sports teams. The seating is inadequate and the ceiling is too low. Plus, it came with a $2 million annual bill for debt service.
Other than that, it was fine.
In the last seven years, the state has spent $30 million keeping the fair, and the fairgrounds, alive.
State managers have determined that a rescue mission is needed to save the state fair.
They talked with stakeholders, business and government leaders and came up with a bold plan that represents the best option for the fair and its facilities.
Before the Legislature is Senate Bill 7, which would create an independent public corporation that would operate the fairgrounds. It would be patterned after SAIF, the state's successful workers' compensation insurance company, and would be unfettered by state contracting law, allowing the board and its manager the flexibility needed to attract events and sponsorships of all types.
In addition, the state would pay debt service, allowing the corporation to concentrate on running the fairgrounds, and eventually, the fair.
State managers say this represents the best hope for transforming the fair and its facilities into a profitable enterprise. Unless the Legislature passes it this session, it may also be the last hope.