By Evelyn Pyburn

Plans are continuing for Montana Fair, despite coronavirus social distancing constraints.

But rather than just nine days of fair, from August 7 through 15, there may be twelve days of fair with the addition of pre-fair dates, July 31 to August 2.

Details, issues and potential solutions were discussed by Metra Park Manager Bill Dutcher, Assistant Manager Tim Goodridge and Marketing Director Ray Massie, with Yellowstone County Commissioners. Commissioners asked the Metra Park team to bring them updates every Monday.

Commissioner Denis Pitman said that as the commissioners talk to constituents they are being asked questions and they need to know answers. Most of the feedback commissioners are getting about holding the fair, however, is very positive and people want to see the “show go on.”

Whether Montana Fair, like many other events in the state, will be held became questionable given the threat of COVID-19 and quarantines, business closures, travel restrictions, and the enforcement by state and county officials of social distancing regulations and other health measures that have curtailed the free movement of citizens. Many events, including other fairs, concerts, races, and sport events have been cancelled.

But with the State now in Phase 2 of reopening businesses and with the relaxation of “stay at home” restrictions and with the number of COVID-19 cases in decline, Montana Fair officials and county commissioners have been working on ways in which they can still hold the fair, even if it means doing so on a smaller scale.

Dutcher said, “We have been working at it every day, Monday through Friday.” They were encouraged with the success of holding high school graduation ceremonies last weekend, he said.

Dutcher said that they have been “listening to people in the community,” and of course conferring with Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton for guidance and direction. “We are talking about open air and a lot of distancing.” Metra Park has four million square feet of open space.

“Nobody minds that we are cutting back,” he said. Roughly speaking they are estimating a fair doing about 40 percent of the business of a normal fair.

Goodridge said that the “point of no return” about holding the fair was June 1, and they made the decision to move forward when they received the commissioners’ commitment to support the Junior Livestock Show with $150,000.

That will be the biggest cost involved in putting on the fair, since there will be no concerts to fund. Concerts have always been the biggest cost and most often they generated little if any revenue for Metra Park.

So without night shows, this year, the fair will include the Junior Livestock Show, food vendors and the carnival. Food vendors and the carnival hold little risk of loss, said Dutcher. In fact, they are almost certain to generate revenue streams since Metra Park gets a percentage of all their sales.

About 4200 visitors are being planned for each fair day. Counters will keep track of the numbers coming and going. Adding the extra days allows them to spread the number of fair -goers out. “We are flattening the curve, too,” joked Goodridge, to which Commissioner Don Jones replied, “Let’s say we are ahead of the curve.”

With all the space and distancing and reduced number of fair- goers there will be no lines, “You won’t have to wait for carnival rides or cotton candy.”

Metra Park comptroller, Kelly Campbell said that they have worked and reworked the numbers and believe that they will break even at about $620,000. “No guarantees,” she said.

Ostlund predicted, “I think you will be pleasantly surprised.”

One benefit of scaling back means that expenses will also be scaled back. Besides not having to pay for the shows – a cost of about $900,000 — labor costs will also be less, since producing the shows is what usually requires most of the labor.

We controlled the margins of expenses,” said Massie. They will be losing about $130,000 in sponsorships, according to Massie, but they aren’t going to have to spend as much in marketing, “which is usually another big expense.”

Advance sales of value passes will probably have to be refunded, but that amounts to only about $13,000.

Pitman said that one of his concerns is the risk of liability. In discussing the issue with the Montana Association of Counties, he said, that was their primary concern. He said that they reminded him that the county was “on the hook” for the first $250,000 for every liability claim. He asked Jeana Lervick, Chief In-House Counsel for the Civil Division of the County Attorney’s Office, what the county’s liability exposure could be.

Lervick explained that the “health officer is there to provide guidance .. if we don’t follow that opinion, we are going to have to explain why, if there is problems.” She said any liability claim would have to demonstrate that the county was negligent.

“How do we make it happen as safe as possible? We are consciously looking at everything to make it as safe as possible,” said Pitman, adding to the staff, “I think you have reduced the risks of a lot of events. That takes away a lot of risk.”

Ostlund said, “There is a little risk in everything. If you go to Costco or to Walmart or go out to dinner. In my opinion we have a commitment to the public to put this on.”

“There is a commitment and there is also a risk,” said Pitman.

Fair administrators are talking a lot with other fair and event promoters in the state. Dutcher noted that there are quite a number of other county fairs moving forward in the state, and they will be taking note of how those events unfold. He said that while Montana Fair in Great Falls was cancelled, the two events are not comparable nor are the situations and staffing. They are quite different, said Dutcher.

Goodridge added, “We are providing leadership that the rest of the state is looking for. They are asking us, what are you going to do? How are you going to do it?”

Ostlund commented that “part of our mission is the economic increment of a lot of people coming to town and doing business at the hotels and motels and restaurants.”

“People are looking forward to it,” said Goodridge, adding that it is good for the moral of Metra Park and of the county.


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