Yolo County Fair has deep connections for fairgoers

08/17/2012 12:00 AM

08/16/2012 11:47 PM

Take a walk through Rita Moore's memories. Don't worry, she doesn't mind.

She grew up and grew older stride for stride with her county's fair. A day before the annual event's opening night Wednesday, you could fairly hear her close her eyes in thought.

"What endures are the smells – it's deep-fried," Moore said Tuesday, taking in a long sniff of air. "It's fair time. It brings back memories of being on the farm. The sounds, the smells, the sights. It's in our blood."

Moore began volunteering at the Yolo County Fair when she was 9 years old. Today, at 64, she's the chief executive officer of the largest and oldest free-admission fair in California. But skip the formalities.

"I'm just Rita," she said.

Woodland's Yolo County Fair is partly a family reunion for generations of Yolo residents.

"Pretty much the entire county comes out," said Gary Bates of Woodland on Wednesday night. Bates and his wife, Kim, were watching their son Kyle, 16, showing off his prize turkey with other Future Farmers of America from a seat in a steamy exhibit barn. "You get friends, co-workers, classmates," he said. "People come out on their lunch break from work."

Moore expects about 150,000 people to attend this year's five-day event, which ends Sunday.

It's also a model for county fairs facing funding challenges and figuring ways to draw crowds in tough economic times.

Last year was a strong one for California's fairs, said Stephen Chambers, executive director of the Sacramento-based Western Fairs Association, as fairgoers sought out lower-cost entertainment closer to home.

But county fair officials continue to wring their hands over the diminished state funding that once provided a safety net for fairs.

For generations, horse racing proceeds helped support the state's county fairs. But as attendance and interest in the sport shrank, so did fair funding.

"We were funded by horse racing for so many years, but that's dwindled," Moore said. "Some of us found new ways" to raise money, she said. "But the ones most at risk are the small fairs."

Since 2009, funding for county fairs has come from the state's general fund. But budget cuts shut off the state spigot and forced fair boards to scramble, Moore said.

"That's been troubling for us. It's hard, because in a difficult economy, you don't want to take anything away from police, fire or teachers," Chambers of the fairs association said. "The fairs have been doing really well, but state funding has been a safety net. It's good news-bad news for us."

Yolo's fair, with its strong community support, free admission and behind-the-scenes volunteers, continues to thrive.

"A lot of fairs have begun the shift to volunteers, and they look to Yolo as a leader in that regard," said Chambers, himself a Yolo fair volunteer in the early 1980s.

Free admission helps, and parking is just $5. Families have more money in their pockets when they get to the fairgrounds.

But it's more than that.

Pat Redmond has a few ideas and can speak with some authority. He's a youth director at Woodland United Methodist Church, which has served up ice cream, floats and shakes at the Yolo County Fair for 45 years.

The booth is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the church's youth group, and any number of community groups at the fairgrounds can say the same.

Better still, the fair is local. Yolo-grown. It's a source of pride.

Redmond pointed to a sign for Route 3 wine from Yolo Vineyards.

"Yeah, we got Napa, but these are local wineries. Local. They're not only local but they're members of our church – and it's good wine," Redmond said with a laugh. "People are trying to support local. You don't see that anywhere else."

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