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North Idaho Fair opens with updated feel, same traditions

Kootenai County Fairgrounds General Manager Dane Dugan is seen in a mirror reflection on the opening day of the North Idaho Fair at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds on Wednesday. (Kathy Plonka)
Kootenai County Fairgrounds General Manager Dane Dugan is seen in a mirror reflection on the opening day of the North Idaho Fair at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds on Wednesday. (Kathy Plonka)

Dane Dugan has a confession: “I’m a fair junkie, there’s no denying it.”

He loves it so much he sleeps at the county fair. Actually that’s more of a necessity this week, where he’s putting in 20-hour days at the North Idaho Fair – his first as general manager of the Kootenai County Fairgrounds in Coeur d’Alene.

Dugan, 31 and single, interviewed for the job during the fair last summer and started in October. Ten months later, the fair has opened with a major makeover, including a vastly different layout, new entertainment and attractions, and more aggressive marketing to bring out the crowds.

Just three hours after the gates opened Wednesday, Dugan could see the changes making a difference. “This is crazy, this is actually more people than I was expecting,” he said.

A few minutes later, former fairgrounds manager Barb Renner greeted him. “I think it’s utterly fantastic,” said Renner, who managed the fairgrounds from 1985 to 2000. “It’s very nice to see change.”

Regular fairgoers may feel a little disoriented walking around this year’s event, with competitive exhibits shuffled around and a carnival almost twice the size as before. A new mascot, Bucky the Horse, has joined the mission. And a parade with kids, a band and antique tractors will wend through the grounds at 5 p.m. daily.

Dugan said he has heard over and over how the fair is always the same. And although attendance has not slumped, it also has not grown with the county population.

“I wanted the layout to be different and to feel like it’s a new experience,” he said. “You still have the same traditions that make the fair special, but you see things you don’t get to see the rest of the year.”

He also is working to spread the word that the fairgrounds at Kathleen Avenue and Government Way is a versatile, budget-friendly venue that’s open year-round, not just at fair time. In his brief stint he has seen the fairgrounds booked for youth soccer and roller derby, wedding receptions and dog shows, home and garden exhibitions and all manner of nonprofit events.

“Our ultimate goal, which we’re already doing, is to be an event center for the community,” he said. “We’re different than a hotel, we’re different than a convention center. Doesn’t mean we’re better or worse, we just offer something that they don’t.”

County fairs have been a passion of his since he was a boy on a farm south of Missoula. His first job was at the county fair in Hamilton, Mont., in the shadow of the Bitterroot Mountains. In college he worked for the state 4-H office and FFA Foundation in Montana, which took him to almost every fair in that sprawling state.

“By the time you go to your 50th one, you pick up a few things,” he said.

Later he was hired to oversee the giant San Mateo County Fair near San Francisco – an experience that prepared him to juggle the chaos and logistical ordeal that accompanies any such job.

When he interviewed for this one a year ago, he was asked to walk around, assess the operation and draft an improvement plan.

“Now it’s fun, because I get to see people enjoying what we’ve spent a whole year to do,” he said.

All indoor spaces, totaling about 100,000 square feet, are newly painted. Some buildings have been remodeled, and new flower planters have been added outside.

“People want places to sit, they want things that are new and different and clean and accessible, and that’s what we’ve tried to do,” he said.

Dugan said he hopes to take on some facility expansion projects as well, but one high hurdle is inferior plumbing and electrical service on the 83-acre site, which was Weeks Field, the municipal airport, before it was converted to the fairgrounds 60 years ago.

“We did an assessment of what it would take to build an RV park, for example. It came back to be like $1.5 million. Almost half of that was because we don’t have the infrastructure throughout the property,” he said.

He’ll have plenty of time to dream and plan. This week, Dugan is focused on making the annual fair both fresh and familiar.

“That’s one of the things about the fair, is that people are nostalgic to the smells, the feeling of being with your family and coming together,” he said. “That’s hard to replace.”