Former Nevada County Fairgrounds CEO Ed Scofield was sitting in his office one day in about 1982 when his concert promoter walked in to see about booking a musician.
“His name is Jerry Garcia,” the promoter told Scofield, now a county supervisor. “He has a band.”
By the time Garcia’s band, The Grateful Dead, came to play, Scofield knew who Garcia was — but not about the drug-fueled, counter-culture ambiance of a Dead Head gathering.
“It was controversial,” Scofield said, recalling the 700 pro and con phone calls and multiple police reports that came into the fairgrounds that weekend. “I was pretty naive about what a Grateful Dead concert was.”
Despite that rocky episode, the fairgrounds have since gone on to host hundreds of major concerts, festivals, events and gatherings over the next three decades.
“Look at what we have today,” Scofield said this week. “There’s not too many places where you can have a major event.”
But even though beautiful grounds and passionate community support have turned the Nevada County Fairgrounds and the five-day Nevada County Fair, Aug. 6-10, into one of the biggest, brightest and busiest such enterprises in the state, it’s not enough.
With 75-year-old buildings crumbling and tree-root-infested paving cracking to the point where walking safely is a problem, even profitable fairgrounds like Nevada County’s need to get the public financing stream that disappeared in 2011 put back in the books, says Sandy Woods, current CEO.
“County fair districts are the only state agencies in California that have no funding,” said Woods, who is head of a Western Fairs Association subsidiary called the California Fairs Alliance, a statewide group lobbying the state Legislature to restore the budget line item that was cut.
“We are blessed that we are financially viable,” said Woods of the Nevada County Fairgrounds. “My feeling is that it’s (because of) the great support of this community that we are in this situation.
“Other fairs are not in this position,” she added.
State money for fairgrounds, formerly reliant on horse-racing revenue, was eliminated after Internet gambling and Native American casinos began eroding the former “ponies” racetrack playground of the Bing Crosby generation, Woods said.
Then, land under racetracks became more valuable for real estate, further encroaching on state financing as racetracks began closing.
The state shifted the fair money to a line item in the state’s general fund budget, but that was eventually cut in 2011 amid the state budget crisis.
A former controller with Mastercard, Woods and her highly devoted staff offset the cuts through a business plan that touts dogged frugality; innovative marketing; and opening the fairgrounds for Fourth of July parades and fireworks, festivals, weddings, meetings, expos, car shows, dog shows and horse shows — and parking lots. (The Union’s Home and Garden Expo is at the fairgrounds this weekend, April 26-27).
“Starting April 5 through Oct. 1, every weekend is booked,” said Tony Brock, the fairground’s senior maintenance manager. “We’re the busiest fairground in California.”
The fairgrounds, dubbed as the most beautiful in the state, are also open to the public during the week as a free, enchanting Ponderosa Pines-lined escape. Several buildings — including the fair restrooms and concession kitchen — have been restored and renovated. Energy-efficient lights have replaced old lighting.
But what the public doesn’t see is that the foundation is crumbling.
“We’re definitely beginning to show wear and tear,” Brock said.
Woods said the fairgrounds have dipped into reserves to do the maintenance and repairs. But the reserves will only pay for so much, she said.
“It’s not sustainable,” she said. “This fair, and all the other fairs, need work.
“I keep looking at the asphalt and going, ‘Oh my god,’” she said.
Woods has sent numerous letters to area lawmakers, pointing out that fairs “serve as a platform that generates thousands of jobs, many in rural areas with unemployment levels significantly above the state average, and produce tens of millions on direct sales tax income to the general fund,” Woods says in a March 25 letter to state legislators.
With the 2014-15 state budget hearings now underway, she hopes someone is listening.
“CDFA (California Department of Food and Agriculture) has 14 of 52 district agriculture associations on their fiscal ‘watch list,’” Woods wrote in a Jan. 14 letter to a pivotal lawmaker. “This means that almost 30 percent of the network may be just one bad season away from collapse.”
This year, the Nevada County Fair gate prices will stay the same as last year. Presale tickets, which go on sale June 2, and special promotion nights are lower priced.
“We’re bringing in the Flying U Rodeo — Extreme Rodeo,” Woods said.
“We’ll also have bull-roping, motorcross, sky divers, monster trucks; it’s going to be one of the best years.”
By October, Woods, Brock and his crew and the other fairgrounds staff are “exhausted, but we’re at the point that that’s what we have to do to survive,” Brock said.
“We want the public to feel this is the greatest place in the world to be,” he said. “Sometimes it’s at the cost of our sanity.”
To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.
This story was updated on Thursday, April 24, 2014, to change the status of gate ticket prices for the Nevada County Fair.