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A county fair may be just the ticket

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Minutes after the gates to the San Diego County Fair swung open last weekend, Rick Smith ran toward the carnival rides, trying to keep up with his two sons, 7 and 10.

With one of the worst recessions in a generation, were the Smiths going to spend less? Would they perhaps skip a few carnival rides, stay clear of the stands selling deep-fried funnel cake and kettle corn or avoid basketball shooting games?

No way. The Smith boys had just finished school and skimping was not an option. "We are just going to go crazy," said their father, a studio engineer from Poway.

Despite glum economic news, fair managers across Southern California are betting that fairgoers will have the same attitude as the Smiths. Knowing families are tightening their belts, they are dangling bargains of all kinds to make sure. That includes some of the lowest prices in years.

"This year, we are going to push the value message," said James E. Henwood, chief executive of the Fairplex in Pomona, home of the L.A. County Fair.

The early signs are they may be on the mark. Other county fair and livestock show operators across the country have reported strong attendance numbers this spring and early this summer. Why? Experts suggest that in tough economic times, Americans turn to county fairs for nearby, inexpensive, convenient and family-friendly entertainment.

"When we go through difficult times, we stay close to what we know and what we love," said Marla Calico, a spokeswoman for the International Assn. of Fairs and Expositions, which represents about 1,300 fairs worldwide.

Take, for example, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which broke all attendance records in March with 1.89 million visitors. The Sacramento County Fair, which ended May 25, had a 3% increase in attendance over last year and a jump of 5% in food sales.

Closer to home, the Riverside County Fair & National Date Festival ended on Feb. 22 with nearly 280,000 visitors, only 8% below its all-time attendance record in 2007. "We were pleasantly surprised," said Riverside County fair marketing manager Veronica Helgeland.

Such a trend also bodes well for the managers of the Orange County Fair, July 10 to Aug. 9; the Ventura County Fair, Aug. 5-16; and the L.A. County Fair, Sept. 5 to Oct. 4, all of whom hope to capitalize on this stay-close-to-home attitude. Some fairs are closed some Mondays and Tuesdays.

At the San Diego County Fair in Del Mar, which runs through July 5, guests who stood in line talked not about the dismal economy but about stuffing their faces with junk food and jumping on every ride on the midway. "We just came for the food and rides," Karen Hinchcliffe, a high school student from San Diego, said as she waited with her friend Stephanie May for the fair to open.

The girls already had a list of the foods they planned to try: Rattlesnake chili, funnel cakes and chocolate covered bacon.

"I might cut back on other things but I'll spend just as much on food," Hinchcliffe added.

The king of carnival fried food, Charlie Boghosian, owner of the Chicken Charlie's food stand, said he raked in $2.2 million in gross revenue last year from the sales of deep-fried chicken sandwiches, S'mores, frog legs and Twinkies, among other treats, at fairs and carnivals across Southern California.

This year, he hopes to draw even more with the addition of his Zucchini Wienie, a hot dog, wrapped in a zucchini, dipped in batter and deep fried. On the first weekend, he sold more than 1,000 fried S'mores and 7,000 Zucchini Wienies.

"When the economy is a little tough and people don't have money to go to Japan or Disneyland," he said, "the fair is the cheapest and best entertainment."

The L.A. County Fair, one of the largest fairs in the country, drew about 1.3 million visitors last year. Fair operators plan to open the fair a weekend earlier and offer huge discounts in hopes of attracting 1.5 million visitors this year.

Among the promotions at the Los Angeles County Fair this year is a season pass for $24.95, about half of last year's $49.95 price tag.

The San Diego County Fair offered a $22 pass, good for all 22 days of the fair. (That deal was good only for those who ordered the pass before June 11.)

For the first time, the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa is offering a "super pass" that is good for all 23 days for $25 for adults, $15 for children and $20 for seniors.

In most cases, one fee pays for fair entrance and access to concerts by The Guess Who at the San Diego County Fair; Heart and Rick Springfield at the Orange County Fair, and Person to Person at the Los Angeles County Fair, among others.

But high attendance may not translate into high revenue for the concessionaires who sell furniture, tools, jewelry and hot tubs at the fairs.

That was the case at the Sacramento County Fair, where attendance, food and carnival revenue was up slightly but revenue for sponsorship and commercial vendors was down 25% and 32%, respectively, said T.J. Plew, chief executive for the Sacramento County Fair.

But Plew was happy, nonetheless, because she was anticipating worse numbers because of the recession. "I expected to take a hit," she said.

The percentage of revenue drawn from commercial vendors, food concessions and attendance varies by fair. Those fairgrounds with more exhibition space, such as the Fairplex at Pomona, home of the Los Angeles County Fair, draw more of their revenue from commercial vendors.

At the San Diego County Fair, merchants who sell saunas, cookware, bathroom fixtures and other household items said they expected sales to be down 20% to 50% this year.

"People are starting to buy a little more, but they are still cautious," said Larry Greene, manager of Platinum Cookware, who was selling pans and skillets at the fair.

But if Southern California's county fairs succeed at drawing bigger attendance numbers this year, will that mean lower numbers for other summer vacation spots, such as amusement and theme parks?

It's possible, said Winston, that amusement parks and county fairs can all do well this summer if the region's 24 million residents decide to put off expensive, out-of-town vacations and instead spend their vacation dollars close to home.

"If people are not going to vacation as they used to," he said, "the local attractions will pick up some of the numbers."

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hugo.martin@latimes.com

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Southern California counties staging annual fairs this summer.

VENTURA COUNTY FAIR

Aug. 5-16

www.venturacountyfair.org

Location: Ventura

Theme: Purebred and Home Grown

Info phone: (805) 648-3376

L.A. COUNTY FAIR

Sept. 5-Oct. 4 (closed Mondays Sept. 14, 21, 28 and Tuesdays)

www.lacountyfair.com/2009

Location: Pomona

Info phone: (909) 623-3111--

Source: County fairs

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