Oregon’s State Fair Takes a Road Trip to Reinvention

By Alaina Buller

Over the past 15 years a domino effect of faltering programs, lowered attendance and fiscal setbacks left the Oregon State Fair struggling to stay afloat. In July 2005 the Oregon legislature began to remedy the situation by disbanding the fair as a state agency and placing it under the management of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD).

“General fund dollars were highly competitive in the last legislative session,” says Chris Havel, communications coordinator for OPRD. “Coming up with the extra funding to fully run the State Fair so there wouldn’t be a deficit was a challenge.”

Conversely, one of OPRD’s major sources of funding—the Oregon Lottery—has been growing, which would allow for additional funds to cover new programs, like the State Fair.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for an institution like the fair—an institution that has a long history with the state,” Havel says. “That’s definitely a part of what our department is about, supporting an institution that celebrates Oregon heritage.”

With this transition came an opportunity to reinvent the fair. Now, approaching its 150th anniversary, all that was needed was someone with the vision and ability to make it all happen.

Originally hired as a consultant for two months prior to the 2005 State Fair, Dave Koellermeier has worked across the U.S. and internationally in the private sector, mainly in agro-business and electronics. During the last few years he’s concentrated on private consultation work for troubled companies. The OPRD took one look at his skills and saw a perfect fit for the State Fair.

But Koellermeier was doubtful. “When Parks was recruiting me, I kept saying, ‘I don’t do government. I don’t do government.’”

While Koellermeier wasn’t interested in pursuing a full-time position, he promised to help. He wrote a seven-page document outlining the plan of action he would take if he were running the show. “I wrote a stupid Jerry McGuire letter, and they used it to recruit me.”

In October 2005, Koellermeier was hired as the official State Fair manager. “I’m at the point in my life where it seems like the right way to try and give back,” Koellermeier says, “and I do have a lot of experience that can make it move along.”

The reinvention process began with one important concept: relevancy. “The word ‘relevant’ surfaced a lot in the legislative session—that the institution wasn’t relevant to what Oregon had become,” Koellermeier says.

He began his position as manager on that premise—reinventing the fair into a more contemporary experience. Part of that process was to first explore why the fair went from being the ultimate Oregon event to a waning summer activity.

Koellermeier’s research took him back to the early 1990s when two technology innovations surfaced. The first affected the popular horse races, a huge revenue source at the time. The technology of simulcasting made it difficult for smaller tracks like the fair to compete with the larger races aired nationwide.

Big-name concerts had the same affect. Traditionally, performers scheduled two shows per evening for multiple nights of the fair. But the ’90s brought the onset of big performance venues, such as the Rose Garden. Artists now had the opportunity to do one show for a much larger audience and charge more per seat. In the end, the State Fair couldn’t compete.

“It wasn’t that they managerially did anything wrong,” Koellermeier says. “They just lost out to technology. They kept thinking that something would come along and we would turn the corner here. And in fact, you really do have to reinvent and figure out a way around something of that magnitude.”

Koellermeier was adamant that changes to the State Fair should come from the community at large, not simply from a few people on staff. His first project, an outreach program, surveyed community leaders from eight Oregon cities and 800 stakeholders. They distilled the information into manageable themes for two separate business plans. The first plan concentrates on the two weeks of the annual State Fair, and the second plan encompasses the remaining 50 weeks of the year.

One theme was constant throughout the outreach interviews: Oregonians want the State Fair to be about the best of Oregon. It seems like a no-brainer, but Koellermeier says it’s been difficult to find some of Oregon’s best known staples at previous fairs.

“Where do you buy Oregon beef? Where do you get Oregon cheese? Where’s Intel? Where’s Nike? Where are the microbrews? Not there. And they sure should be,” Koellermeier says.

Bart Eberwein, vice president of Hoffman Construction Co., also noticed the lack of Oregon pride when he attended the fair last year with his 12-year-old daughter. Eberwein, also president of the nonprofit Architecture Foundation of Oregon (AFO), saw this as an opportune time to offer his foundation’s help.

“I went to the fair last year and thought to myself that this really doesn’t speak to me about the state in any way that makes me feel terrific. The food is something you can get anywhere; it’s not great Oregon food. The rides you can find anywhere. And the agriculture, which is still one of my favorite parts, seems almost like a holdover, or an afterthought,” Eberwein says.

Eberwein contacted OPRD Director Tim Woods after the merger and Woods connected him with Koellermeier. The two quickly noticed that they had the same vision.

“What if we became a state fair that people from all over visited?” Eberwein asks. “We need to include stuff that defines Oregon, not just curly fries and upside-down rides. That was the beginning of a really interesting conversation.”

As a result of that meeting, AFO is one of several groups that offered assistance in the reinvention process. A group of people representing 20 different architecture firms met at the fairgrounds to offer their insights, from the fair’s signage to the flow of traffic to the possibility of creating new interactive exhibits, such as a backwoods bike trail or simulated skiing.

“AFO saw this as an opportunity to be of service to the state,” Eberwein says. “It was a totally volunteer effort. I just really like what State Parks is doing; it has a lot of energy around it right now.”

The State Fair business plan, which is scheduled for completion by the end of 2006, will include programs that emphasize Oregon food, beverages and dining experiences; science and technology events; historic preservation and heritage appreciation; extensive music options; sports, recreation and health programs; and an expansion of the agricultural programs to include more of Oregon’s natural resources.

One of the ways Koellermeier hopes to highlight the best of Oregon is by creating more competitions, for example food and beverage contests that begin all around the state and culminate at the annual fair.

Aside from the program additions, the fairgrounds and buildings will also be addressed, which is part of the business plan for the remaining 50 weeks. Koellermeier says he is eliminating expensive repairs on facilities that are marginally used, and instead creating ways the private sector can add to the revenue stream on a year-round basis. For instance, rather than repair the housing for FFA and 4-H students, he proposes to demolish the current setup and create cabins and yurts that can be used for camps in the off-season. And he’s been toying with the idea of creating a modern culinary arts center for the food and beverage events that can be used as a culinary school later.

With all the changes and additions, Marketing Manager Diane Childs says it’s a balancing act between preserving conventional events and creating relevant activities that will draw a new crowd. “The fair is full of tradition. As organizers of the fair we have to have that balance of knowing those traditions—not trodding over them—and knowing what has to be new and exciting for people,” Childs says.

The traditions will remain, but Childs knows it’s essential to work smart and creatively to attract a new crowd. Competition is snapping at their heels. “Years ago people wouldn’t even dream about organizing an event during the State Fair…now in the last 15 to 20 years I’ve seen events popping up all over the place. I think it’s good competition. It forces us to have to really think about what we are about.”

Though the majority of the changes will be made by 2009, a few renovations will begin with this year’s fair, including a huge improvement in musical choices. Nine popular artists, ranging from Ted Nugent to Sara Evans, will perform in the renovated outdoor amphitheater and indoor pavilion—a far cry from last year’s lack of big-name stars. Patrons will have a larger selection of free entertainment as well.

Some aesthetic improvements will also be completed by the end of this summer. Five restaurants with too many needed repairs have been removed, and private vendors will supply mobile units. And the entrance gates and other areas within the fairgrounds will be enhanced with more landscaping.

Koellermeier knows he’s got his work cut out for him, but he says the community seems just as excited about the changes as the staff does—something he recognized during his outreach meetings in January.

“For people to drive through the freezing rain…to meet with me, whom they’ve never heard of, from an agency they’ve never heard of, for pathetic fruit and coffee, no pay, and to talk for a couple hours about the Oregon State Fair, I would argue that maybe only in Oregon would this happen. It was heartwarming.”

BrainstormNW - August 2008

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