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Grange Fair: Organizing 'fair with all the tents' is massive endeavor

by on August 01, 2017 9:38 AM

If you want to camp at the Grange Fair, you had better find the philosopher’s stone — the mystical substance from ancient legend that was supposed to make someone immortal — because the wait time for a tent was literally hundreds of years before staff stopped taking names.

Out of the 1,000 tents set up each year for campers from 22 states, perhaps only one or two will open up after each season. When organizers for the Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair stopped taking names years ago, the list had grown to about 500.

The RV wait list, too, is long. Combine the 1,500 RVs with the families and friends in the 1,000 tents, the fair participants and workers, and the 25,000 just coming in for a day, and you get more than 200,000 visitors each year to the largest fair acreage-wise in Pennsylvania.

All those people, all the vendors to feed them, the 7,000 exhibits, the rides and attractions to entertain them, and infrastructure and staff to support them equals a multi-million dollar operation that is renowned throughout the nation.

In the space of just a few days in late August (the 143rd edition runs August 18-26), waves of tent and RV campers will form a small city on the 264-acre fairgrounds, just outside the boundaries of Centre Hall Borough.

Darlene Confer, manager of the fairgrounds, has a single word to describe the week leading up to the fair’s opening as everyone moves in: “Chaos.”

Yet every year, everyone finds their place on the grounds and the temporary denizens of the pop-up city settle in.

Everyone is pretty well-behaved, Confer says, because no one wants to lose their spot.

The campers may bring their couches, signs, and fancy lights, but the encampment doesn’t just happen spontaneously. There are 38 committee members overseeing the various departments, with about 375 employees in varying capacities under a payroll budget of $600,000.

The expenditures for the 2016 fair were $2.7 million. The fair paid $100,000 in taxes and manages a $120,000 sound system. The fair racks up $336,000 in utilities, with $137,000 going to electricity, and $125,000 to sewer.

This last point is something that most fair-goers won’t think about, but sewage management is a reality for major-event organizers. Recently the fair had to buy a $250,000 sewer tank because it was exceeding its cap of 27,000 gallons per day. Even that tank isn’t big enough. Workers have to pump some waste onto a truck that hauls it away to another treatment plant during the week of the fair.

Grange Fair staff and committee members say their planning for a particular year’s fair starts during the previous year’s event. While they’re walking around enjoying the sights, smells, and human connection, making sure all is in order, they’re also taking stock of what can be improved upon, what should be eliminated, and anything that needs to be repaired or replaced, Confer says.

Bill Witmer, grounds superintendent, starts with about 10 people in March to awaken the grounds from the November wintering and builds to a 20-person crew as the fair approaches. Some are mowing fulltime, working their way around to different sections of the grounds. Throughout the spring and early summer, they paint and make repairs to buildings. They also patch up the tents, since each tent costs just under $1,000, and the minimum order is 40 from Woods, a Canadian outdoors company.

It’s at this time that Grange staffers will begin to implement the improvements they saw from last year’s fair, like which buildings need TLC and what roads need to be repaved. With more than 100 buildings, they have to pick and choose where to invest.

When the spring thaw arrives, Amy Evans, director of marketing and social media, begins plucking up the sponsorships. By March, the contracts for vendors are in the mail and are due back in June. The Grange Fair is always looking to add variety to its spread of food vendors. Barb Gates, director of concessions, this year added a cookie dough stand, and in recent years has added gluten-free options.

During all of this, the grounds are host to numerous other events not related to the fair. The closing weeks of July featured a host of 4-H events, a dog show, two reunions, an event from the Pennsylvania Quarter Horse Association, and the PA Certified Organic Farm Fest.

As July draws to a close each year, the grounds are cut off from outside groups. It’s time for the big one.

The tents require a large amount of labor, and take about 10 days to set up or tear down. They can’t remain up for long, for fear of storm damage, so the crews get help from inmates at local correctional institutions.

Then, the Sunday before the fair, the tenters are permitted to install their 4-foot-by-14-foot porches at the front of their 14-foot-by-14-foot military-style tents, as well as a 6-foot-by14-foot kitchen. At this time they can also drop off their heavier items, like their iconic Grange couches and furniture.

The RV campers move in from the Friday through Monday at the start of the fair, directed by the gate and parking crews.

During fair week the grounds crew are helping people to park, solving problems with campers, and making last-minute repairs. They’re constantly roving for debris and taking garbage out of the fair.

Then comes the final day of the fair, which turns into a mass exodus, Confer says. “It’s a mad dash, it truly is,” she says. About 90 percent of the tenters and RV campers will be gone by the close of Sunday after the fair has concluded, and the vendors have all moved off to their next event. The grounds crew will work to clean up and return the grounds to a usable state for the next events. Every department worker will take stock and prepare to debrief.

There are too many departments within the organized structure of the Grange Fair to list, but hundreds of people work long days before and during the fair to serve the 200,000-plus guests each year.

During all of this planning, the fair staff and committee have to look to the future and add little pieces to the overall puzzle.

This year, for example, the Grange Fair is taking advantage of the evolution of a photo-centric culture. There will be a selfie booth as well as a life-like baby Tyrannosaurus for children to pose with; both have been massively popular at other fairs.

Evans has been working to engage people through social media, using a huge photo library from years past. She says this helps organizers reach a wider audience in the United States and Canada, generate interest during the off-season, and push Grange Fair promotions like advance ticket sales to prospective visitors.

“I think what it does is engages our fair audience all year long because we do post on our site all year long,” Evans says. “I think it keeps the excitement going year after year.”

After the next fiscal year’s budget is set in early fall, the fairgrounds begin to close down. As winter begins, so begins the call by Kris McCloskey, entertainment coordinator, to the performers for next year’s show. She’ll set them in stone sometime in January. McCloskey will schedule many local performers for two of the stages, but then Variety Attractions of Zanesville, Ohio, will help to obtain some of the larger acts for the main grandstand stage.

Confer says that while the area is well-familiar with the fair and what it has to offer, local residents might not realize how widely renowned it is.

During a trip to the International Association of Fairs and Expos in Las Vegas, she says she was received warmly; people had been waiting for someone from the Grange to share knowledge of such a huge endeavor.

“When I arrived I registered and they said ‘We’ve been waiting for you! You’re the fair with all the tents! We’ve been reading, we’ve been on your website. You have to tell us about it!’”

Keeping to the original spirit of country fairs, Confer says the Grange Fair is still king when it comes to agriculture.

“The (Pennsylvania) Department of Ag tells us that we have the best agricultural fair,” Confer says. “They’ve reiterated that several times.”

“It’s always been a part of our mission to be an agricultural fair. Although we look to many other areas to attract people, we try to remain true to that mission. We just have such a strong community as far as agriculture goes, the 4H, the extension programs, the FFA programs, very, very strong in Centre County.”

To follow the latest developments regarding the fair, visit Sean Yoder is a staff writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.

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