Jeanne Keaton, General Manager of the St. Lucie County Fair Association, ascribes her success to a motto that has worked beautifully for years: "If it ain't broken, don't fix it." This deep respect for what works practically and for what has occurred historically, has been evident in everything from fair administration to exhibits.
Saint Lucie County, Florida is itself steeped in history. The very names of key places in the area attest to that. "Saint Lucie" was named after Santa Lucia, traditionally associated with light and sight. "Indian River" hearkens back to the native Ais tribe. "Treasure Coast" refers to the gold and jewel laden Spanish fleet that sank nearby in 1715.
In keeping an emphasis upon heritage, this year's 48th annual fair made a special point of honoring the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon's landing. In conjunction with the Viva Florida campaign, and in cooperation with the Sunrise and Downtown Kiwanis of Ft. Pierce, the School Display Building featured historical contributions within the following six categories: Native, Spanish, French, Black, WW II, Jewish, and Cuban. Keaton was quite impressed with the rich variety of Florida's artists. For example, the Highwaymen are a group of resourceful African American landscape artists who mostly hail from the Ft. Pierce area. In the years before the civil rights movement took hold, they successfully managed to sell their work from the back of trucks and along roadsides. They are considered by some to be "The Last Great American Art Movement of the 20th Century."
As an art lover, Keaton is also excited about dance opportunities that the fair has offered for local youth. On Saturday and Sunday of both weekends in 2013, there was a separate stage where kids learning tap, ballet and other styles could share their talents with the public. The stage even had a special gymnastic-type dance floor. Keaton added that the students eagerly spent the whole year preparing for their special fair presentations.
When asked about the price of these and other shows, Keaton replied, "All of our entertainment is free with gate admission." This is a wonderful value for fairgoers who not only get to appreciate local talent, but are also able to see such well-known acts as Kellie Pickler and The Guess Who. Singer-songwriter Lloyd Mabrey has been "a fair favorite for 15 years," and comedian-hypnotist Chris Mabrey was "back by popular demand."
Overall entertainment was by no means limited to the stages. Murphy Brothers, with help from James E. Strates Shows have been providing midway thrills at the St. Lucie Fair for over six years now. Keaton spoke very highly of the "really nice Kiddie Land with lots of seating for the parents." She also mentioned "the vertical swing, the Fireball, the Zipper, and the roller coaster" as being particularly memorable for fair guests. There were about 47 rides on the midway in total. The Exotic Animals Show was also a bit hit. It's no wonder that the midway revenue was "up 1.9%" this year. According to Cathy Murphy of Murphy Brothers, this was a "record-breaking year even despite the cold weather."
Keaton added that "ride promotions are pretty much the same year after year," which helps people to "really plan for whatever economic bracket they fit into." She stated that "a lot of families come in for our free days" so that they can then better afford the midway armband.
She reiterated that "being consistent in what you offer people is important for their financial planning on attending a fair..." Advance purchases yield substantial savings: armbands on weekends were $25, but only $17 when bought before the event. Although not everyone takes advantage of savings such as these, Keaton noted that more and more people are doing so. She stated that "even the younger age group is starting to pay attention to the specials."
When asked which foods were popular, Keaton enthusiastically answered, "Everything!" She described the sirloin tips as "one of the crowd's favorites," and said that "about every third person went out the door with an elephant ear." Fresh fried pork rinds were something new this year, and Keaton said that the vendor "did very, very well." He had sweet rinds with cinnamon and sugar, plus tangy ones with salt and vinegar.
Other crowd pleasers included the market steer and swine auctions (for which state recognition has been received). Keaton explained, "We usually are pretty close to the top price per pound that's awarded in the state." She continued, "Our buyers are extremely supportive of the kids." Swine this year was "$6.07 per pound for the livestock."
All these successful attractions made for a fruitful 2013. Keaton reported that attendance "went up about 2%" from last year. This was also encouraged by the gate specials that "happened just about every day of the week." The regular gate admission price was $10 for adults, $3 for the six-to-twelve age group and those younger than six were admitted free. Specials included buy one get one, dollar days for kids, and $2 off the gate admission if you brought along a can of edibles for the Sunday food drive. During these tough economic times, discounts were especially appreciated.
According to Keaton, the fair's annual budget was "about a million two." The Saint Lucie County Fair Association, Inc. is "a private 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency" with its own board of directors, trustees and staff. This year's advertising budget was in the neighborhood of $250,000. Keaton explained the budget included "a lot of trade advertising in exchange for sponsorships of different things." The media campaign was "pretty much 80% electronic and 20% print." Social media efforts included 102 Twitter followers (with Tweets about events, promos, livestock updates, and various applications). There was also a Facebook log-in page for guests.
All of these tried and true efforts will no doubt foster more decades of tradition-making at the Saint Lucie County Fair. Although some will argue for big changes in 2014 and beyond, Keaton's formula for sticking with what works has been a formula for success for her event.