Elephant controversy abets fair attendance increase | TheUnion.com

Elephant controversy abets fair attendance increase

Matthew Renda
Staff Writer

The Nevada County Fair witness a boom in attendance in 2013, particularly when compared to a down year in 2012.

The phrase "There's no such thing as bad publicity" is widely attributed to Phineas T. Barnum, famed showman and founder of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

This presents a significant slice of irony as the strident controversy surrounding the elephant rides at the circus-themed 2013 Nevada County Fair not only failed to detract from attendance but served to enhance it, fair officials said Wednesday.

"It looks that way," Nevada County Fairgrounds CEO Sandy Woods said. "The whole issue put a spotlight on the Nevada County Fair."

While the attendance numbers are still in the finalization process, Woods said she is fairly certain that a new record for single-day attendance was set Sunday and that all-around attendance for the five-day event was robust.

Woods said several factors led to the large boost at the box office, including favorable weather (especially compared to last year, when temperatures broke 100 degrees during the fair) and a promotion that granted free entry to the grounds from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.

However, Woods said, it would be remiss to ignore the impact of the publicity generated by the contentious elephant ride issue, which featured a petition that drew worldwide attention and news stories that played on Capital Public Radio and other prominent media outlets throughout the region.

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Critics of Have Trunk Will Travel, which provided two elephants for children to ride, said the exhibit represented an unethical exploitation of the pachyderms while alleging prolonged mistreatment of the animals.

During meetings of the fair board, in Internet chat rooms and during casual conversation, many people vowed to boycott the fair due to the presence of the exhibit.

On Wednesday evening — the opening day of the fair — about 70 people gathered outside the main entrance of the fair to protest the fair board's decision to retain the elephant rides despite the community outcry. About a dozen congregated around the Have Trunk Will Travel ride to voice their displeasure.

However, the protests and boycotts were counterbalanced by an influx of attendees interested in seeing the exhibit, Woods said.

"Many patrons coming from the Sacramento area and Bay Area expressed that they came specifically to see the elephant exhibit," Woods said in an email to The Union. "We have received significant feedback from patrons, thanking us for providing them the opportunity to learn more about elephants and interact more closely with the impressive pachyderms."

The influx in attendance helped other elements of the signature event as overall carnival revenue for the fair increased by 15 percent over last year, Woods said.

While the percentage jump may be slightly misleading due to low attendance numbers in 2012 because of the hot weather, Woods said the 2013 incarnation was one of the most successful she has helped engineer in her 18 years with the fair.

Gross sales at Treat Street were up about 20 percent, from about $568,000 in 2012 to about $686,000 in 2013. The junior livestock auction was strong with gross sales of about $394,000, also representing a 15 percent increase over 2012. The Ag Mechanics Auction grossed about $48,000, an increase of 24 percent over last year.

"On Sunday, the 2013 carnival ride 'on-site sales' increased 72 percent from the 2012 carnival ride 'on-site sales,'" Woods said. "It appeared that patrons drawn to the fairgrounds to see the elephant exhibit also catalyzed an increase in the carnival ride sales."

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email mrenda@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.

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