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East Texas State Fair thrives on repeat guests

11/29/2013

By Linda McNatt

Photo courtesy of East TX Fair

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Four country boys followed the long road home to Tyler, Texas this year and made a big splash with their performance among the home folks they knew best.

J.B. and the Moonshine Band, an up and coming country and western group, has been around for about three years, and already they've had their share of hits. The group, with J.B. Patterson, Gabe Guevara, Hayden McMullen and Chris Flores, all grew up in Tyler Texas, said John Sykes, president and CEO of the East Texas State Fair. When they appeared at the fair, it was apparent they were getting a warm welcome home.

The group, with J.B. Patterson writing most of the songs, has released two albums: I Ain't Goin' Back to Jail and Beer for Breakfast.

The Swon Brothers, who came in third last year oPhoto By East TX Fairn NBC's The Voice, were also a big hit, said Sykes. Jack Swon and his brother, Colton Swon, grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma. When they were young, they toured with their parents who had a gospel group named Exodus.

They've had two major hits, Oklahoma Lovin' and Too Close to Gone.

The Swamp Brothers also performed to rave reviews.

The fair ran from September 20 through September 29. It's owned by The Park of East Texas, an independent, charitable organization that has its focus on educating and promoting agriculture in East Texas, supporting families and the community. The fair is the organization's major fund raiser of the year, said Sykes. The fair has contributed more than $413,000 in scholarships since 1992.

"This fair is a nostalgic fair with deep traditions," he said. "This is our 98th fair. We've been going on for almost 100 years."

And people keep coming back year after year. Surveys show that return customers account for 70 percent of those who attend the fair each year. About 68 percent of those attending also attend every year.

"We're real pleased with our statistics," said Sykes.

The weather hasn't been exactly perfect for the past couple of years, said Sykes, and that has been a bit of a problem for the fair. But the weather in 2013 wasn't nearly as bad as it was a year ago.

"East Texas had been going through an extreme drought," he said. "When the fair came along last year, it started raining, and we got a standing ovation."

The rain last year really affected the attendance. This year, there was heavy rain in the area - about 6 inches - on the first Friday night of the fair. There was heavy rain again on the following Saturday.

"Things went good," said Sykes. "Those two days kept us from being great. We're really kind of ready for that perfect weather."

About 194,000 people attended the 10-day fair. The fair generally has an attendance of about 250,000. One bright spot was the midway, which was l up over last year, said Sykes.  North American Midway Entertainment the fair brought food, rides and entertainment to the fair goers.

East Texas State Fair midwayNorth American Midway Entertainment visits 20 states and four Canadian provinces each year. The company's headquarters is in Farmland, Ind., and it has regional offices in both the United States and Canada. The company advertises itself as the world's largest traveling amusement park. North American Midway plays 10 of the top 50 fairs in the U.S. and Canada each year. The company also claims that every ride is checked for safety every day. There are 18 safety specialists traveling with the show and every new employee gets 56 hours of professional safety training when they're employed. The show travels about two million miles a year.

The midway brought with it the Speed, White Water, Mardi Gras, Mini Himalaya, Safari Rescue, Wacky Mouse, Free Fall, Carousel, Dragon Wagon, Rescue Boats, Fun Slide, Motorcycle Jump, Kamikaze, Ghost Pirates, Cliff Hanger, Hurricane and many more, according to Amy Girton, director of communications and media relations for North American Midway.

Fair organizers boast that more than 600 volunteers work with the organization, doing everything from giving directions to assisting the handicapped. The volunteers donated more than 4,500 hours of service during the time of the fair.

The entrance fee for the East Texas Fair this year was $8 for adults, $5 for children, and most of the entertainment was included in the gate admission price. The fair is spread across 22 acres of fairgrounds, and that's beginning to be much too small of an area, said Sykes.

"We gave it everything we had this year," he said. "The attractions change every year. We believe in diversity. We had new rides, always something new. We also believe in creating a fun and educational environment."

The fairgrounds are located near a major highway, and the fair organization keeps a strict focus on security. Backpacks, for example, are searched at the main gate.  The Tyler Police Department handles everything on the streets, and the Smith County Sheriff's Department takes care of everything inside of the fences.

The fair hires temporary personnel to make sure the grounds are spotless. There are restroom attendants, a solid waste disposal system, and street sweepers. There are even workers in place for sanitarily disposing of waste from the livestock grounds, and those maintenance employees are on duty at all times.

East Texas State FairThe livestock show attracted 1,865 entries this year, said Sykes, and the animals - cattle, goats, sheep and smaller animals - came with 721 exhibitors from every corner of the state. Many of them were students belonging to either 4H or the Future Farmers of America.

Other entertainment included the Sandlofer family's Wolf Show, which includes rescued wolves trained to perform, and the Sinbad High Dive Show. That thrilling show included divers jumping first from three meter and five meter platforms and finally making 80-foot dives into what appeared to be a pool that was far too small, searching for a prize of a golden pineapple.

The Great American Frontier Show presented details of how the United States was built, showcasing the role of oxen, horses, the Pony Express and historic figures.

There were special days for entrance with special prices for specific groups like senior citizens, high school and college students. The midway also offered special armband prices for rides.

The fair was advertised on radio, television, and social media. Sykes said that the East Texas Fair focused this year more than ever before on social media. The advertising budget was about 5 percent of the fair's gross budget, and Sykes declined to divulge that amount.

About 43 food vendors served the fair this year with everything from alligator to fried pecan pie. There were 2,000 cases of turkey legs delivered to the fairgrounds and "tens of thousands" of potatoes.

The electric bill alone for the event was expected to amount to at least six figures, Sykes said.

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