Officials hope a name change for the Thurston County Fairgrounds will help drum up more rental business for its barns, arenas, exposition halls and other facilities during the off-season.
The Thurston County Commissioners recently voted 3-0 to officially change the name to the Thurston County Fairgrounds and Event Center. The change was requested and recommended by the county’s 16-member volunteer Fair Board.
“It’s a move kind of statewide when we’ve talked (with) people from other fair associations,” Fair Board president Peggy Zimmerman told The Olympian. “Clark County has said it’s made a difference in how the community perceives the facilities and how they use it. And that’s a huge fair.”
The Thurston County Fair runs five days in August, but takes two to three weeks to set up and tear down, according to Thurston County sustainability and economic development manager Joshua Cummings, who coordinates the fair. That leaves about 330 days a year that the fairgrounds buildings, which include Heritage Hall and Thurston Expo Center, are available for rent, he said.
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The facilities at 3054 Carpenter Road SE, Lacey, are regularly rented out for weddings, Quinceanera celebrations, reunions, community festivals and corporate trainings, Cummings said. Usage rates have climbed over the past three years, but are still significantly lower than in 2012, when the fairgrounds were hurt by a sour economy, a drop in attendance and exhaustion of its reserve funds.
During the past few years, workers have tried to focus on regrowing rental business by improving facilities, Cummings said.
“We’ve come out of that confusing, difficult period,” he said. “We had issues with plumbing and the building operations and facilities, and we’ve cleaned those up. We’re available.”
In 2015, the main buildings were used on 223 days, down from 260 days in 2012. Revenue-wise, the county has averaged about $159,000 a year in rent since 2013, but that’s down from $182,506 in 2012.
The fairgrounds has an annual operating budget of about $500,000, and about half of that is revenue generated during the five days of the Thurston County Fair.
A stretch of scorching weather — temperatures that stayed in the 90s during fair week — cooled attendance last August by about 25 percent. The 2015 event drew 26,250 attendees, down from 36,700 people in 2014. Net revenue was $96,090, down from net revenue of $109,770 in 2014.
Meanwhile, the county commissioners allocated $105,000 from the 2015 general fund to the fairgrounds, and a portion of that was to improve facilities and prepare for increased advertising and outreach, Cummings said
Zimmerman said a new name isn’t the only news at the fairgrounds: Members of the Fair Board and other volunteers recently broke ground on a new building near the horse barns that will house bathrooms and showers.
The $100,000 building will be supported by a Department of Agriculture grant, money raised through the Thurston County Fair Foundation and private donations, she said. The majority of the work, including the digging the foundation and most of the construction, will be done by volunteers, she said.
“We’ll install the toilets,” Zimmerman said. “The volunteers will be doing a lot. We’ll be doing all the prep work.”
She said the new bathrooms and showers won’t be fancy, but they are an amenity the fairgrounds needs and has been lacking, especially since many exhibitors, participants and workers camp at the fairgrounds the entire fair run.
Zimmerman said the Fair Board also is looking into buying some new reader boards that would help advertise events and promote the Thurston County Fairgrounds and Event Center’s facilities.
“The more money they generate, the more improvements they can do at the fairgrounds,” she said. “It definitely needs to be a community resource and something we would love to see utilized.”