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County Fair Spawns All-Year $185-Million Business Boom

October 04, 1987|FRED M. MUIR | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Fair is becoming much more than 18 days of candy apples, carnival rides and racing pigs.

Year-round use of the 487-acre fairgrounds in Pomona now includes drag racing, conventions, swap meets, rodeos, automotive design testing and child care.

These and other activities at the fairgrounds contribute an estimated $185 million to the county's economy, according to a study released Friday by the accounting firm of Laventhol & Horwath. And with a year-round payroll of about 150 workers--which balloons to more than 3,300 employees during fair time--the nonprofit Los Angeles County Fair Assn. has emerged as one of East County's largest employers.

Now, under a 15-year master plan that takes the fair through the year 2000, the fair association is embarking on a aggressive development schedule that includes construction of a 300-room hotel, expansive accommodations for conventions and an equestrian center that organizers hope will become the central marketplace for horse sales in the state.

As fair President Ralph Hinds said: "It's big business now."

The fair's organizers say all of this is simply a means to gain financial support for continued growth and upgrading of the original fair. The Los Angeles County Fair, Hinds said, is banking on increased revenues and profits from these facilities and events to pay for still more improvements for the 18-day fair--already the largest in California and seventh largest fair by attendance in North America.

The expansion plans, while grander than those of most fairs, reflect a national trend. During the 1970s many fairs found they couldn't afford necessary maintenance and improvements. So regional, state and county fairs throughout the country began rapidly expanding their schedules and adding new features in an effort to raise money.

On average, each of the 80 California fairs sponsors about six events every day of the year, ranging from grand prix racing and driver training, to funerals, weddings, conventions and concerts.

The Los Angeles County Fairgrounds attracts more than 2,000 visitors on days when the fair is not in session, and the Western Fairs Assn., an industry trade group estimated that 25.8 million people attended activities at the state's county fairgrounds last year when fairs were not under way.

Hard figures are difficult to come by, but industry experts estimate the level of use at fairgrounds has more than doubled during this decade. And the outlook is for continued growth in year-round use.

"All of the fairs are interested in not only maximizing their facilities, but in taking a fresh look at themselves," said Susan Travers, spokeswoman for the Western Fairs Assn. "They were all sitting there with buildings and parking lots in active communities. . . . The grass in the parking lots was a lot higher than it needed to be," she said.

"We are stressing interim use," said Dave Terrill, fairs management consultant with the state division of Fairs and Expositions. That agency oversees the bulk of California fairs that are state-sponsored under the Department of Food and Agriculture. "It's a way for them to be more self-sufficient . . . and more of a service to their community," said Terrill.

Or, as Hinds said: "It's not healthy to have all of your eggs in one basket. If you have one rain-out, it could be a disaster."

This year, even an earthquake didn't turn away the crowds in Pomona.

The fair, which closes today is running ahead of last year's attendance of 1.4 million, according to spokesman Sid Robinson.

But being a large, diversified business has its attendant problems and worries. The Los Angeles County Fair Assn. has expenses of nearly $20 million annually, including an $11-million payroll. It also has debts and other liabilities of about $6.7 million.

And the cost of its planned expansion could top $60 million.

Still, the Los Angeles County Fair Assn. is financially strong with $23.4 million in assets.

Thus far, about 75% of the fair association revenues comes from the fair itself, with the remainder from events during the other 49 weeks of the year. Hinds said that ratio will approach the 50-50 mark within the next several years as the hotel and other year-round moneymakers are completed.

"The hotel is no pipe dream," said Hinds in an interview last week. "We are just now finalizing a 55-year lease with the county" for the land where the hotel will be built. "Within 30 days we hope to announce an agreement" with a major hotel company.

Thus far, Hinds has made good on his promises. Since 1985, the fair association has developed a 250-space recreational vehicle park, renovated and upgraded 100,000 square feet of exhibit space now used for conventions and trade shows and extended the half-mile race track to five-eighths of a mile.

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