North Idaho Fair and Rodeo Manager Barbara Renner set two precedents when she was elected president of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions in December.
“I am the first woman president in its 108-year history and we are the smallest fair to have been represented in its executive chairs,” said Renner, who has managed the fairgrounds in Coeur d’Alene since 1985.
Among the members in the international association is the Texas State Fair, which runs for a month straight, attracts 3.5 million people and lays rightful claim to being the largest fair in the world.
Renner, who runs a five-day fair on about 90 acres, said she is not intimidated by her larger peers in the 4,000-member organization she now leads.
“Just because you’re a little fair doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish big things if you believe in them,” said the manager, adding that 80 percent of the membership is made up of fairs with attendance of less than 100,000. “It’s an industry like any other. We’re all doing the same job with different demographics.”
Before she moved into the manager’s office, Renner was a blue ribbon-winning regular in the sewing, cooking and gardening categories at the county fair. Her introduction to fairgrounds in other states came when she formed a ladies’ equestrian drill team in the early 1960s.
“When I got married, it was to a rancher,” Renner said. “I got involved in the drill team because he wanted me to learn how to ride a horse. For 20 years, we appeared in fairs and rodeos all over the Pacific Northwest - that’s how I got hooked on this business.”
Those early fairs featured calf scrambles and greased-pig contests, events that have since been dropped due to liability concerns. Another draw that has come and gone in Kootenai County is horse racing, which ran at the fairgrounds from 1963-1983.
The wheels of change gained speed when Renner became manager. Before that time, the property was used almost exclusively for the weeklong salute to agriculture that took place every summer. Since 1984, the fair board has invested about $1 million in improvements, building a facility that now is booked up to 300 days a year, according to Renner.
“We have just about everything you can imagine,” she said. “Trade shows, gun shows, boat shows, private parties, motorhome caravans, llama sales - you name it.”
On weekends, as many as five events are scheduled in the 35 buildings at the fairgrounds.
“There are only 52 weekends in a year and everybody wants Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Renner said. “If I could figure out how to do Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, we’d be set.”
Casting a wider net for income is all-important, she added, because public money is drying up. Last year, the fairgrounds received $80,000 in tax dollars from Kootenai County, roughly enough to pay the electric bill and complete a single improvement project for the year.
But from both a financial and cultural standpoint, the North Idaho Fair and Rodeo, held each August, is the main event, representing 80 percent of annual revenues. For 1997, the fair brought in almost $540,000. Packing so much earning power into a limited time frame, however, has its drawbacks.
“A day of rain is a disaster,” Renner explained. “That happened this year and I’m off by $20,000.”
Fair patrons can still get their fill of candied apples and carnival rides, as well as three days of rodeo, a draft horse show, demolition derby, three stages of entertainment running simultaneously and nightly grandstand shows.
True to her roots, Renner has kept agriculture in the forefront at the North Idaho Fair.
“Fairs today have to rely on those roots because we have a real story to tell and we’re the only people still doing it,” the manager said.
The exhibits may be traditional, but Renner has used her flair for marketing to update their presentation.
“What we’ve done in the last few years is get rid of what I call the ‘pickle mentality,”’ she said. “We’re not putting the same jar of pickles on the same shelf it’s been sitting on for the past 20 years.”
As part of the shift, the fair schedule was reworked to move livestock exhibits from early mornings to an afternoon slot that boosted spectator attendance. Breaking with convention, Renner had the draft horse exhibit turned around to offer a more palatable view for passers-by.
“Instead of looking at the horses’ behinds, we now look at their heads,” she said.
Although the fair is the most-profitable event of the year, it is also the most expensive.
“We have quite an extensive budget,” said Renner, unfolding a spreadsheet in front of her like a newspaper and reading off the line items.
Acts and Shows - far and away the largest expense. Payroll. Facilities and Maintenance.
Then there are expenses that are specific to a fair. Premiums and awards, for instance, bear an annual price tag of $24,000.
“Hay and bedding,” the fair manager read out loud, dropping the spreadsheet an inch or two and smiling over the top. “How many other businesses do you know that have hay and bedding on their budget?”
The next big project for Renner to tackle is what she called the “$8 million to $10 million dream” of building an events center at the fairgrounds to host sporting events, concerts and conventions. To those who say it can’t be done, she responds:
“Can’t is not in my vocabulary.”
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