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MontanaFair crowd

A huge crowd enjoys a warm summer evening on the midway at MontanaFair.

The carnival rides and corn dog stands are long gone from the MetraPark fairgrounds, but MontanaFair 2012 remained on the minds of board and staff members last week as they brainstormed ways to improve the state’s largest event.

While calling the nine-day August fair a success, officials agreed there was room for improvement and considered taking some risks when it comes to night show entertainment.

The group also mulled whether it is time to charge for parking as a way to boost the budget to bring in better talent.

“It was a great fair — a good, safe fair without a lot of problems,” said MetraPark Manager Bill Dutcher.

The carnival and food sales set records for gross revenue while fair gate admission revenue was up over last year.

Overall revenue of $1.84 million is about $66,000 short of the $1.9 million budgeted, said Kelly Campbell, MetraPark’s comptroller.

But when all expenses and sponsorships are paid, MontanaFair is expected to break even, Campbell said.

MontanaFair provides MetraPark with about 25 percent of its annual operating revenue; taxpayer support funds about 38 percent of its operations.

Total attendance of 240,656 was down about 12 percent from a high of 273,482 in 2008, but was off less than 1 percent from 2011 attendance.

Night shows need some work, board and staff members agreed. MontanaFair budgeted $520,000 for night show revenue and fell short by about $88,000.

“I think we had some weak entertainment,” said Sandra Hawke, MetraPark’s marketing director. “Was it 'A list'? No. Did the public notice? You bet,” she said.

Not every year is a loser for night shows, but this year’s lineup of Sublime with Rome, Colbie Caillat and Gavin DeGraw and Billy Currington may have been more ho-hum than other years.

One reason for the lineup, Hawke said, was that this year’s $300,000 entertainment budget was a little slim. MetraPark put more of the money into boosting supercross and rodeo this year, leaving less for concerts, she said. MetraPark booked what was available and within budget, she said.

“There’s a balance there,” Hawke said.

MontanaFair also was competing with other community events, like the Magic City Blues Fest, which featured Chris Isaak, Counting Crows and Alison Krauss and Union Station, Hawke said.

Board member Todd Buchanan suggested that MetraPark take a risk and spend half of its entertainment budget on a name act, like Elton John, or capitalize on its reputation for country music and book a star instead of diluting the lineup by trying to offer something for everyone.

The entertainment budget probably needs more money, Hawke said.

Board members kicked around ideas for finding that revenue, from getting more sponsorships to charging for parking.

Board member Bruce Jensen suggested charging $5 for parking in the lower lot to boost the night show entertainment budget.

MetraPark is moving toward paid parking, Jensen said.

In talking to people about the issue, Jensen said, there is “not one who won’t pay five bucks” for parking.

Great Falls charges $5 for parking during its fair, Dutcher noted.

The board also explored charging more for the $50 ValuPass, which provides admission to all seven night shows and fair admission.

“It’s too cheap,” said Barry Usher, board president.

But Sue DeVries, assistant manager, said $50 was the “magic number.” Sales were “dead in the water” when the book cost $65, she said.

While a MontanaFair profit would have been welcomed, the board was pleased with a break-even fair.

“Maybe the case is we nailed it. That is the goal of a civic center,” Buchanan said.

“In today’s bad economy, break-even is good,” Usher said.

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Federal Court, Yellowtone County Reporter

Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.