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State fair still evolving as public corporation

The state fair became a public corporation in 2013 to be more nimble in managing its interests.

CAPITAL BUREAU - The Oregon State Fair is a public corporation.As the Oregon State Fair enters its final weekend, officials managing the fair and the event grounds say they are still adjusting to its relatively new structure as a public corporation.

The fair formally struck out on its own in 2014, having been under the umbrella of the State Parks and Recreation Department since 2005. In 2013, the Legislature approved a plan to make it a public corporation.

Fair officials say that the new structure has allowed the state fair, now a quasi-governmental entity, to be more nimble and business-oriented, especially when it comes to processes like procurement.

Although the fair itself had been financially viable prior to the reorganization, the fairgrounds and expo center were losing money during the rest of the year.

Dan Cox, a spokesman for the fair, contends the fair has seen "double-digit growth" in recent years.

While that may be true in terms of revenue, expenses also grew apace between 2015 and 2016, and net income for the state fair between those two years fell by about $100,000, state records show.

The state fair makes money not just from the annual event, but also from the expo center at the fairgrounds.

Last year, the fair brought in $5.4 million, while the expo center, which hosts events such as trade shows and concerts, brought in about $1 million.

Oregon State Fair Council Chair Craig Smith says things are looking up.

"We're not losing money," Smith said, noting that the state fair was "at least breaking even."

"We're focused on keeping the state fair alive," Smith said. "It's come close to being eliminated a few times. Our number one goal is to make it successful. In doing that, we've made some changes. Any time you make changes, some people love it and some people don't."

In past years, Smith said the state fair had become more of a Salem event, and was perceived as a "carnival and a farm kid thing."

"We certainly want to keep those agricultural roots," Smith said, while "looking for ways to educate the city kids" who might be familiar with backyard gardens and chicken coops but could be unfamiliar with cattle or goats.

Traditionally, state fairs were held to celebrate the end of summer, when agricultural work is at its height, said Smith, a former Chemeketa Community College vice president and CFO who grew up on a farm in Nampa, Idaho.

Smith said state fairs were also meant to be informational — an opportunity for farmers to check out the latest equipment and ways to increase their yields.

And the fair plans to expand on that educational aspect this year, with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)-oriented events such as a robotics competition.

And state fair officials want to coordinate more with county fairs for a mindset they're calling "all roads lead to the state fair."

Smith also said the fair plans to survey attendees about where they're from and what enticed them to visit the state fair in the first place.