The Gaston All American Fair in Gastonia North Carolina may seem like a first time event, but in reality was a revival of a county fair that had almost been forgotten.
According to Melanie Blankenship, owner of two outdoor event production companies – Sassy Southern and Events On Main – it has been more than 15 years since the third largest county in North Carolina had a county fair. She was convinced she was not alone in missing an outdoor event that lasted several days, featured carnival rides and fair cuisine and brought the whole community together. “It had been a lot of years since this county had a fair of any length of time,2” she said. “We used to have one, and a lot of people wanted us to do it again, and we’ve had other events on the property (Eastridge Mall).”
Beyond the 4th
Eight years ago, Blankenship organized a July 4th “fair” – a one day event featuring mainly vendors and fireworks. Although a smaller-scale event, it clearly established a demand and audience for a summer community celebration in the area.
In order to expand this one day show into an economically viable 10-day fair what was needed was a midway and of course, you can’t have a midway without a midway provider. The dilemma was the date. New fairs are uncommon enough, but finding a carnival company to commit to one of the busiest days – Independence Day – proved impossible. Blankenship had to abandon the July 4th date, moving the Gaston All American Fair to June 14 – 24.
Turned out the dates made for perfect match into the existing route of Wade Shows, who were working their way north for the season in June. “It just happened to the fit into the routing,” said Frank Zaitshik, President, Wade Shows. “It was more of a festival than a fair, and we know it was a first time event so we had that in mind, but she (Blankenship) was very ambitious with her promotions.”
Wade Shows went in with a modest footprint – 20 rides – “our routing allowed us to allocate those assets, but it was the right size for the event.”
Zaitshik admits that “we took a chance,” on a first time event, but “some people have aspirations, but their implementation is weak. I would say that [Gaston All American Fair] worked out. The general public turned out and for a new event, it seems to have staying power.”
One of the highlights of the Wade Shows run at this upstart fair deep in the heart of Tar-Heel country was the firework display. “Their fireworks show was much better than even some larger fairs.”
Blankenship’s experience putting on the July 4th event certainly enhanced her fireworks expertise, but the fair also had some help. According to the Gaston Gazette , Gaston County’s Travel and Tourism Department kicked in “$15,000 toward a fireworks show… Travel and Tourism Director Michael Applegate pledged the county’s money after meeting with Melanie Blankenship… “From a marketing standpoint, we felt it was a good opportunity,” Applegate said.”
The support from the community – a Gastonia City Councilman and owner of Blue Real Estate Group reportedly donated “several thousand dollars” – was strong as could be for this event, vindicating Blankenship’s deep felt hunch that the people of this county needed their fair back. From sponsors – which included local businesses and the local minor league baseball team, Gastonia Grizzlies – to cherished volunteers – the outpouring of support was much higher than for the one day event. “We had a great community response, more sponsors and volunteers, it was very community oriented,” she said.
Public and financial support also enable the fair to be free to the community. The fair featured more than 70 vendors, and although the per-day vendor fee was not higher for the expanded event, extra days actually increased demand for booths. The fair received more than 300 vendor applicants. Preference was given to vendors who exhibited at the previous July 4th events, then the fair was more selective when it came to new vendors. “We reworked how we chose vendors, so we didn’t have many repeats. How many hair-bow vendors do you want, you know. So we made those decisions, we didn’t want quadruple vendors with the same merchandise. We also looked at who would sell the best to the crowd. We had more vendors from out of town this year, and you have ask, is it worth their costs to come here.”
There about eight food vendors, which included usual fair cuisine such as funnel cakes, snow cones and fried Oreo Cookies and Snicker Bars but also purveyors of Mexican and Indian food.
Entertainment at the fair ranged from local musical acts to Elvis Impersonators, and events were also community centric, including pie and pepper eating contests. “We wanted to keep alive our popular eating contests and old fashion activities, things we remember doing when we were kids, that’s what’s going to a fair was all about.”
The advertising budget tripled from the previous single day July 4th event. In addition to local radio and newspaper advertising, “it was a real grassroots, hanging posters around town, getting the word out.”
Facebook was also instrumental, with promotions that featured gift cards to local businesses as well as free tickets to Gastonia Grizzly games. “The most successful promotions were giveaways with likes and shares, and we had gift cards for restaurants, hair sales, massages. We got a ton of exposure. One post does not translate into feet on the ground, but created different types of awareness.”
Weather mainly cooperated, although a couple of triple digit days necessitated the need for misting tents. “It got stupid hot,” she said. “That was the biggest challenge, that was the third day of the fair.”
Since only distant if fond memories exist of the original Gaston County Fair, the 2018 Gaston All American Fair can only be measured by its own merits. “It was new, so nobody knew what to expect,” admitted Blankenship. “It was definitely a different dynamic than a one day event, we had to work triple overtime but it was very popular. People came for the rides, Wade Shows was awesome.”