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Fair planners' goal is something for everyone

OTTAWA, Ohio - Fire up those cotton candy machines.

Rustle up that prize pig.

And please, please keep the sun shining.

It's county fair time, and fair officials across the state are wringing their hands, worrying if the high-priced entertainers they've lined up will draw a crowd, whether Mother Nature will cooperate, and whether their attempt to offer something for everyone will succeed.

It's a tough job.

In Ottawa, where the Putnam County Fair begins Tuesday, the big event for the week is Friday night's truck and tractor pull, sanctioned by the National Tractor Pullers Association. Rain would turn the grandstand into a mud pit, said Eleanor Risser, treasurer of the local fair board.

“This is something new. We thought we'd give it a try, and I hope it's a hit,” Ms. Risser said. “Last year we had bull-riding and the year before we had a rodeo. We're just a little fair. We can't afford the big entertainment. We can't get that many in our grandstand, and we can't compete with Findlay and Allen County and Wood County.”

While nothing can replace the livestock and other junior fair competitions that bring families to the county fair, organizers are finding that entertainment is one of their best bets for drawing a crowd.

Allen County Fair manager Jay Begg said his fair is one of the largest in the area, attracting more than 200,000 people, because it offers entertainment for city dwellers from Lima as well as a strong junior fair for rural residents from the largely agricultural county.

“That's what really drives our fair: Grandma and grandpa coming to see the kids. Mom and dad taking vacation for the week to be at the fair with their kids,” Mr. Begg said. “... I think we do a decent job too of providing urban people with the entertainment they're looking for - concerts, rides, and free entertainment on the grounds. It's those two things combined.”

This year, the Allen County Fair, which runs from Aug. 14-19, will host the country group Alabama as well as Ted Nugent for what Mr. Begg called the “baby boomer rockers.”

In Adrian, Lenawee County Fair officials have been trying for the last few years to appeal to a variety of music lovers. This year, they'll have REO Speedwagon for those baby boom rockers, and O-Town, a band that formed from the ABC show The Making of the Band, for the younger set.

Becki Williams, a Lenawee County Fair Board member, said the fair is bringing in two country singers who should have diverse appeal because both are young: Jessica Andrews and Billy Gilman. Of course, the fair, which runs from Aug. 12-18, will have the usual tractor pull, demolition derby, motorcross racing, and pie baking contest.

“We try to have something for everyone in every category,” Ms. Williams said.

Todd Boltin, an entertainment consultant with Zanesville-based Variety Attractions, said the two fairs are typical of what he sees happening at the county fair level.

“I've been doing this for 18 years, and when I first started out, it was pretty much strictly country just about every night at the fair,” he said. “Now, and this year especially more than ever, that is changing.”

Classic rock groups like Styx, REO Speedwagon, Journey, and Kansas are popular on the fair circuit as are contemporary Christian groups and teen acts.

Van Wert County Fair officials had been bringing in rock and roll acts for nearly a decade but made an about-face this year after local church groups and others complained about their choice of Motley Crue for last year's fair. Some found the group's lyrics offensive. The fair board decided to bring in Carman, a contemporary Christian group, Sept. 2 for a change of pace.

Mr. Boltin said county fairs once booked country singers almost exclusively, in part because the entertainers simply weren't playing anywhere else. Now, country acts perform at amphitheaters, stadiums, and concert halls as commonly as pop acts.

“It used to be to see a country act, you had to go to the county fair,” Mr. Boltin said, adding that fairs still have the advantage of offering concert-goers free parking, less expensive concessions, and generally lower-priced tickets.

“Country music and county fairs have always been a good marriage, and it will still hold its own,” Mr. Boltin said.

The Wood County Fair in Bowling Green is hosting country singer Neal McCoy Aug. 4; the Sandusky County Fair in Fremont has Clay Walker and Tim Rushlow Aug. 25.

The Hancock County Fair hosts Trace Adkins Sept. 1 followed by a Beatles tribute band, Backbeat, Sept. 3.

The Williams County Fair in Montpelier also has a country-classic rock line-up with Montgomery Gentry and Trick Pony Sept. 9, and Foghat and Nazareth Sept. 15.

The idea, officials said, is to get people to the fairgrounds who might not otherwise come. They try to keep ticket prices low and hope concert-goers will visit the agricultural exhibits, buy food and drinks, and check out the midway while they're there.

“If we break even, we're happy because we've gotten them to the fair,” Mr. Begg said. “Hopefully, they had a good time, learned a little something about agriculture, and if we make money that's a bonus.”

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