I still believe the California State Fair could use some fresh ideas some pizazz to flourish in the 21st century.
That doesn't mean I'm celebrating the decline of a longtime tradition the promotional exhibits by counties. Yes, they can be corny, but to me they're as much a part of the fair as cotton candy and the Ferris wheel.
Only 29 of the 58 counties have exhibits this year, including three San Francisco, Alameda and Marin who did a joint production that is pretty lame. That's the fewest since the county exhibits returned to the fair in 1986 after a five-year hiatus.
Like much else these days, the economy is mostly to blame. County governments, nonprofits and businesses that pay for the exhibits have all hit hard times. When counties are reducing help for the poor and laying off sheriff's deputies, it's hard to fault them.
The exhibits can cost as little as $2,000 or $3,000, or as much as tens of thousands. Organizers can recoup some money or even turn a small profit by winning prizes from the fair, which ranged this year from $3,600 to $10,000.
The bigger payoff, however, is in marketing their county to tourists, as well as potential new residents and businesses.
There was a surge of interest in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of California's statehood in 1998, but there has been a steady decrease since 2001, when all but three counties participated.
Greg Kinder, the fair's deputy manager for programs, says he expects counties to come back as the economy rebounds. He can't imagine the fair without the exhibits, which have been around for more than a century and provide some local flavor.
"That's what the State Fair is all about," he says. "Our plan is to continue this in some way, shape or form."
I hope so.
While many fairgoers are more interested in the rides, the food and trendier attractions, the county exhibits bring us back to the roots of state and county fairs in America.
Wednesday, there was a decent noontime crowd strolling through the exhibits. But with so many counties missing, the displays barely filled half of the main floor of Building A, leaving plenty of room for corporate booths, vendors and concession stands.
It was discouraging, actually.
The presentations, themselves, ranged from the ordinary to the ingenious.
Amador has a working wooden tailing wheel from a gold mine. Mendocino promotes whale watching and features a big wine bottle with the label "America's Greenest Wine Region." Sacramento's is designed to look like the inside of the new airport terminal, billed as the "Gateway to Northern California."
It's easier for counties closer to Cal Expo to put together an exhibit, but some further away make it a priority. Seven including Placer, Sacramento and Yuba have participated in every fair since 1986.
A few take the competition very seriously.
Solano won Best of Show this year for the seventh time in 10 years with its elaborate "Farmers Market," a walk-through barn filled with locally grown fruits and vegetables and surrounded by plastic-foam farm animals.
The planning started in December, it took the full 19 days allowed to build and it cost $40,000, which came from corporate sponsors and the county.
"We kill ourselves so we will win," says Paul Curtis, who has designed Solano's exhibit for 13 years and is already thinking how he can outdo himself next year.
He understands why so many counties are absent but says they're missing out.
"It's really a shame," he told me. "I'm sure all the other counties want to be here. Who doesn't want to show off their county?"
Solano has a friendly rivalry going with Placer County, which won the coveted Best of Show in 2010 and 2011. This year, Placer won best content and best design for its "Bridges of Placer County" exhibit.
Steve Torgerson, 61, of Fairfield was glad to learn his son Shane can enjoy plenty of outdoor activities when he moves shortly to Placerville from New York City. "I didn't realize they had wine up there, gold panning and fishing, too," Torgerson said.
Placer and Solano are still vying for one more prize the People's Choice award, which will be handed out on the fair's final day, July 29.
You can still vote, and if you're going to the fair it might not be a bad idea to swing by the county exhibits. The way things are going, there's no guarantee these exhibits will be around too much longer.