Is a free Western Montana Fair more fair? How will it fare?
In its inaugural meeting Thursday, the Fair Event Committee debated the idea, before unanimously recommending it to the Board of County Commissioners.
Event Manager Tom Aldrich, who proposed free admission, sat in on the meeting, as well as Fairgrounds Director Emily Bentley.
“It is a public service for the community,” Aldrich said of the fair. “And because of that, it is important we make it available to anyone, regardless of economic status.”
Aldrich argued the numerous advantages: free admission would bring people back to the fair multiple days, where earlier they may only have gone once in the week; it would decrease the hassle for 4-H parents required to buy tickets to help their children set up exhibits, and it would ease fair staff training and security requirements related to large amounts of cash on site.
He acknowledged it’s a financial risk. The fair earned $43,000 last year from gate admission. But he said every year’s fair is a risk, and he’s confident concessions and carnival earnings would go up at least 10 percent this summer.
“We have noticed a strong correlation between free admission days and carnival sales,” he said. “I really strongly think it’s going to be no sweat making it up this year.”
Just as important, he said, "we’re not going to increase prices for the arena events to try to make up for it.”
All the concessions are run by, or donate to, area nonprofits, Aldrich said, giving more money back to the community than into the county’s account.
Brooke Martin supported the move. “Missoula County residents pay for the fairgrounds, why do they have to pay to use it?” Martin asked. But she said that with free admission, the fair should seriously consider increased security.
Free admission doesn’t mean the gates are flung wide, Aldrich said. They’ll still have volunteers manning the gates, checking bags, counting visitors and offering help, just no admission sales.
But a new law enforcement strategy is in the works, he added.
After approval by the committee, the proposal will go to the Board of County Commissioners for approval.
Chief Operating Officer Chris Lounsbury said in March the board, though advisory only, would still be taken seriously by the board of county commissioners and their decisions would be essential to keeping the annual event running smoothly.
“Typically the commissioners are pretty deferential to advisory boards,” he said. “While they do deviate sometimes … they do take that piece pretty seriously.”
When the idea for a new committee was announced in April of last year, Bill Nooney Sr., a 40-year member of the Western Montana Fair Board, was skeptical an advisory only board would be the best direction for the fair.
“After they get their feet on the ground and a little experience, they'll need to be able to make decisions they aren’t going to have to run past people downtown who aren’t even aware of how a fair should be run,” he told the Missoulian.
The committee adopted a set of standard bylaws, which require their meetings be public and agendas posted online at missoulafairgrounds.com.