With a little bit of cluck

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

s_Robin

I grew up in Ohio, only a generation removed from farm life, and most of my summers were spent visiting relatives who still worked the land. For a city kid, they were glorious weeks of sun-warmed vegetables from the garden and cows with soft noses. I remain deeply in love with chickens because of Aunt Ethel’s coop. I grew up and moved away, but kept close to those summers by hunting down every state fair in every place I’ve lived.

So of course I’ve loved Oregon’s annual summer fair in Salem. Despite the decrepit buildings. Despite the beyond-the-usual-bad bad food. Despite the general shabbiness. It was enough that I could visit the exquisite, if also decrepit, poultry house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and get my chicken fix. I’ve been loyal despite it all.

But Dave Koellermeier, a fourth-generation Wilsonville farm owner who grew up with this fair, wasn’t willing to settle for the disrepair that had befallen the 144-year-old institution. “I was embarrassed by what it had become,” he says. “It was a pathetic product.” So, two years ago, he took over as the state fair’s manager to fix it.

The state fair might mean just chicks and caramel apples to some of us, but to Koellermeier and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, the fairground is a 186-acre underdeveloped economic engine that could and should be the pride and joy of the state.

So last year Koellermeier brought back concerts, instituted free parking, made sure there were “better manners” at the attendance gate and generally spiffed up the place. The result? Fair attendance was up by 13%, after a downslide for several years. With about 350,000 people attending, it’s the fourth-largest city in Oregon during its 11-day run.

That was just the start. Since then, a dozen buildings have been demolished, including the ramshackle 4-H dorms that greeted fairgoers like a smile with bad teeth as they entered the grounds. When the fair opens Aug. 24, there’s more cool stuff: a Lego competition, a jousting event, the return of the fiddlers and the square dancers.

The poultry house will have a fresh (and historically correct) paint job and rounding out chicken heaven will be the Big Cluck Grill-off. Chief among the improvements will be a threeacre sports health and recreation park with bocce ball, skateboarding, BMX demos and several run/walks; an area devoted to renewable energy (with, if all goes to plan, a full-size wind turbine); and a new picnic grove with an area  dedicated to all-Oregon food and beverages.

These are harbingers of Koellermeier’s plans. He doesn’t want to just polish the fair, he wants to reinvent it. He wants this fair to connect to roots beyond agriculture.

“I want to showcase the best of all of Oregon,” he says, including the arts, energy, tourism, food and sports. Even bigger, he wants to use the fair to bridge the urban-rural divide and to help lift the downtrodden north Salem area.

That’s a tall order for a state fair, but why not dream big? A draft master plan for the expo center and fair calls for a permanent wine and culinary center and energy-park pavilion among other things, all with an eye toward making the site a year-round destination. That’s key to getting the fair out from under its $22 million debt pile, and providing the foothold for long-term growth.

It will take time, and money doesn’t grow on cotton-candy sticks. But Koellermeier plans to get there bit by bit every year. “Continuous improvement” is his strategy.

That’s a fitting segue to our September issue, where continuous improvement is also part of our strategy. When the end of August rolls around, check out your state fair and your statewide business magazine. Both will have a few surprises for you.


— Robin Doussard
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