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Fairgrounds 01 (copy)

Chris Nyomo, a painter with Staggs Painting, puts the finishing touches on a staircase at the front of the Commercial Building at the Missoula County Fairgrounds in 2019 in advance of the Western Montana Fair.

The Western Montana Fair saw a 4% decrease in overall attendance in 2019 compared to 2018, but sponsorship hit an eight-year high at $84,602, according to a snapshot the fair released last week.

“If there is one word to describe the 2019 Western Montana Fair, it is resilient,” said the update posted on the fair's website. "With a heatwave followed by hailstorms, things looked grim at times. But when the sun came out, so did the crowds."

The report noted the fair this year was shorter by one day and one fewer rodeo event. It pegged total attendance this year at 77,093, slightly down from 2018 but up from the eight-year average. In most categories, the update said "numbers only dropped 2-4%," with ticketed arena events feeling the brunt of the drop; the report did not provide a revenue overview.

Missoula Board of County Commissioners Chair Dave Strohmaier said the board had not yet received detailed financials for 2019, and he's looking forward to learning more about whether revenue is increasing or decreasing in concessions and other categories.

However, he said one critical factor for the fair is free admission, a key to making the fair accessible to community members.

"It's part of our overall economic development strategy for Missoula County by way of providing an attraction and a venue that really symbolizes the merging of urban and rural values and interests, and (the fair) does so at a regional scale," Strohmaier said.

Located in the heart of the community but with an agrarian theme, the fair is a tangible symbol of the interconnected nature of urban and rural Missoula County, Strohmaier said. This year marked the third the fair offered free admission, and the fair update noted there's no going back. 

"Free admission ... has a three-year track record demonstrating the fair operating at a much stronger level than years prior, even with each of the last three years offering unfavorable weather," said the update. "Free admission is here to stay, and the sky is the limit on bluebird days."

According to the fair report, most categories declined by slight amounts, like concessions, carnival and parking, while the nighttime shows and pre-sale carnival sales dropped by 20% and 13% respectively. Individual exhibitors rose from 1,016 in 2018 to 1,308 in 2019, although exhibit entries dropped by about 500.

And a fun fact from the post: over 350 gallons of vegetable oil were recycled, along with 4,000 pounds of metal and 2,500 pounds of cardboard.

Missoula County is still in the process of shaping the fairgrounds into a facility that can be used 365 days a year, Strohmaier said. So far, he said community members use the ice rink and participate in other events and celebrations not necessarily tied to the fair.

This year in particular, Strohmaier lauded the restoration of the Commercial and Culinary Arts buildings, part of a $3.9 million preservation overhaul that will "restore the fairgrounds to its glory."

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