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Merced County Fair: Thank You Veterans


By Linda Van Slyke

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When folks at the Merced County Fair say "Thank you" to their veterans, they mean all their veterans.  This was especially evident within the one-hour video that was shown continuously   at the 2013 Fair Pavilion.

This video, which is now available on the Fair's website and Facebook pages, features photos of veterans and active-duty service members submitted by Merced County families. Viewers got to see "the faces of hundreds of local soldiers who fought from the Civil War to the present day."  These faces included those of Japanese World War II veterans.  Given that there once was a "Japanese Relocation Center" not too far from the present-day Pavilion, this latter inclusion was particularly poignant.

A member of the fair's Board of Directors came up with the 2013 "Veterans" theme, and the public eagerly embraced it.  The slogan, "Thank You Veterans," was chosen from a  host of community submissions.  Many excellent ideas were submitted, but this direct expression of  heartfelt gratitude ultimately said it all.

Other expressions of gratitude included a flagpole dedication and some special opening ceremonies.  There was a "feature exhibit including a vintage ambulance on loan from Castle AFB." Merced County Veterans' Services were in the Commerce Building providing information on jobs and benefits.  "Blue Star Moms" were assisting fairgoers with writing postcards to active-duty soldiers. 

Marketing Manager Diane Conway reported that this year's Run for the Fallen, honoring "10 local people who died in Iraq or Afghanistan," was scheduled to coincide with the fair. She explained that Merced County had been "a big Air Force Base town for a long time, so there's that kind of history."

Reverence for military sacrifice runs deep within this region.  Conway explained that the fair exhibitors also emphasized this year's theme.   Merced's Public Works Department  generally focuses upon teaching the public about resource conservation.  This year, however, they also highlighted "pictures of veterans that work in the department."  The "Farming in Merced" exhibit likewise included "pictures of farmers in the area who were veterans."

Conway's "History of the Merced County Fair" is as thorough a presentation as readers would ever hope to find on a fair's website.  It epitomizes the saying, "You can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been."  Since Merced County has had a fair for over a century, there's a lot to learn about.  For example, these same fairgrounds also housed "a county library branch, a fire station, a school for the handicapped, a preschool program" and Merced College.  Even Tiny Tim once "tiptoed through its tulips..."

Butler Amusements has provided the midway at the fair for 13 years.   New rides on the midway this year included an ARM Vertigo and a KMG Spin Out. 

The "Fair Foods & Drinks" section of the website states, "You won't believe all the menu choices at the Fair" - and then proceeds to list them.  This "menu of all menus" makes it fun and easy to tantalize your taste buds in advance.

The overall excellence of this informational "banquet" is no accident.  Conway reported:  "Basically we redid our website...  We were trying to develop something that a fairgoer could just look at and get the information they need.  This saves time and energy for the fairgoer and the staff.  Instead of referring a caller to a website that is too brief, we feel good about sending them to a website that can really answer their questions."

The Merced County Fair also pays a lot of attention to its social media sites.  Conway explained: "You can say you're on Facebook or on Twitter, but then it's really important to be active there. You can't just put something out and then leave it alone.  People will be asking questions, and you don't want three days to go by without answering them."  The practical essence of Conway's social-media philosophy is that doing it haphazardly can be much worse than not doing it at all.

Conway's total advertising budget for 2013 came to $56,700.  Of that amount, $20,686 was spent on radio, $7,650 on TV, $1,900 on production costs, and the balance on print and internet ads.  The money was obviously well spent because this year, despite a "huge heat wave," attendance was up from last year "every day of the fair except for Sunday" (Father's Day).

This year's general admission price was $5 - the same as last year.  A recent news release explained that the fair "cut general admission in half to $5 in 2012, a move that has been very popular with fairgoers, a notion substantiated by the numbers.  Comparing 2013's sales to 2011 when general admission was $10, on-site ticket sales are up 17.2%, total paid attendance has increased by 17.9% and total attendance is up 11.2%."

Midway profits also increased considerably from last year.  Conway reported that "the ride gross was up every day but Sunday.  Through Saturday, we were up 10.1 percent - which is significant because we were already up substantially in 2012 when we first lowered our prices."

From their humble beginnings in the nineteenth century - and through their darkest hours in the twentieth - the Merced County Fairgrounds have been ever evolving.  There is a keen awareness of where they have been, and an even keener one of where they now stand. 

As Conway said about this year's "Veterans" theme:  "The whole thing became a pretty amazing journey.  The community caught hold of it, and it just turned our beautifully."  One could also say that about the fair itself...

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