Organizers of the San Fernando Valley Fair, a 55-year-old summer institution that opens Thursday, are grappling with how to improve flagging attendance that plummeted last year to fewer than 10,000 people, officials said.
After a poorly publicized move last year from Burbank to the Hansen Dam Recreation Area in the northeast San Fernando Valley, paid attendance fell by a third and the state-funded event lost $188,000.
"It was such a mess you really don't want to try to pick on it," said Eddie Milligan, who subleased part of his Hansen Dam Equestrian Center last year to the fair.
Since then, organizers have incensed their new neighbors by unveiling ambitious--but eventually abandoned--plans to build a permanent home at Hansen Dam. They also have publicly feuded with federal officials who tried to shut down this year's event.
But the board of directors hired the management team of Dan Jacobs and Randy Jaqua, who run the now-profitable Antelope Valley Fair. Since taking over management of the Lancaster-based event six years ago, it has gone from losing hundreds of thousands of dollars to becoming one of the most successful fairs in the region.
The new group is counting on the lure of Tex-Mex rocker Freddy Fender, rides you can see from the freeway and blue-ribbon livestock.
"The fair is unique in the San Fernando Valley, and you've got young people out here who've never seen a goat or a chicken," said Rob Wilcox, president of the fair's board of directors.
In the 1980s and '90s, agricultural fair attendance stagnated in rapidly developing areas such as the San Fernando Valley, said Stephen Chambers, executive director of the Western Fairs Organization, a Sacramento trade group.
The Valley fair, he said, has had to overcome other obstacles, including competition with the popular Los Angeles County Fair and three changes in venue in the last dozen years.
"It's all about finding their identity and that starts with a consistent site," Chambers said. "I don't know if I've been to that fair at the same place twice."
In 1988, the fair's longtime site at Devonshire Downs was bought by Cal State Northridge for campus expansion and the event was sent packing to Burbank. But hemmed in by a number of city rules there, fair organizers headed to greener pastures last year at Hansen Dam, Wilcox said.
The flat, grassy area was an ideal place to build a permanent fairgrounds, officials believed. But when neighborhood groups saw the plans in October, Wilcox said "they nearly rioted," fearing permanent buildings would threaten the area's bucolic setting.
As a result, this year's event will be a tents-only affair. If organizers get a better response--they're hoping for 20,000 paid visitors--they may try again to put down permanent roots at the dam.
"It's been like wandering in the desert a little bit," Wilcox said. "Certainly this is the place that makes sense for a long-term facility. But we need to see how the community feels about us this year."
The Army Corps of Engineers, which makes the rules at Hansen Dam, has indicated that the fair is not welcome on the property. In a May 2 letter to the city Department of Recreation and Parks, Lt. Col. Charles Landry said the fair "does not fit our recreation mission," and should find a new site.
Wilcox said board members hope corps officials can be swayed to change their minds, as they were this year.
"Do we plan to pursue it? Absolutely," Wilcox said.
Earlier this week, the focus was on the task at hand: transforming the grass patch off Foothill Boulevard into that familiar mix of carnival rides, live animals and fried novelty foods. But this fair will have a few suburban twists. Although many agricultural fairs around the state allow only local livestock to be entered in their contests, the Valley fair invites entries from Ventura County and other counties to participate, given the lack of grazing land in places such as Studio City.
Although much of the Valley is developed, locals are not dissuaded.
"They're still out here," said David Gershwin, spokesman for Councilman Alex Padilla, who represents the Hansen Dam area. "There are people with chicken coops in Pacoima, believe you me. People still have horses in Chatsworth, and there are ostrich farms in Sylmar."