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updated: 7/21/2012 6:30 PM

Lake County Fair adds a dose of wackiness

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  • Judge Christine Spilde looks over the animals at last year's Lake County Fair in Grayslake.

       Judge Christine Spilde looks over the animals at last year's Lake County Fair in Grayslake.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Banana Derby races are back at the Lake County Fair, running Wednesday through Sunday in Grayslake.

       Banana Derby races are back at the Lake County Fair, running Wednesday through Sunday in Grayslake.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer


Even the judges aren't sure how to gauge the sasquatch calling-competition, which is expected to be half the fun.

"No one actually knows what that sounds like, so there can be many interpretations, which we encourage," explained Matt Campbell, superintendent of live competitions for the 84th annual Lake County Fair, which opens a five-day run Wednesday. "Let us have it."

Although it's just one wacky attraction amid five days of livestock showings, craft and food competitions, truck and tractor pulls, motocross, live music, food on sticks and carnival rides, sasquatch calling in a sense represents a new way of doing business for fair officials.

"What could be more new than a sasquatch-calling contest?" asked Sheri Vyfvinkel, who is in her second year as the fair's business manager. "That could be crazy enough to work. We'll find out."

While the bedrock of the fair has been and always will be Lake County's agricultural heritage, adjustments are being made to be relevant in a modern age and attract younger visitors.

"We need to find that perfect balance between tradition and what's new," Vyfvinkel said. "We need to be constantly evolving but sticking with the core element."

Changes made

As in any year, adjustments have been made to the layout. Gaps in the public areas will be filled with attractions, and beer tents will be closer to the entertainment. And for the first time in several years, the fair will run five days instead of six to trim costs and make it easier for vendors and others to attend. Admission will be reduced on weekdays and a special family package introduced.

But new offerings, including a movie competition, the debut of the Chicago Flower & Garden Show and a retooled Ag Adventure! presented in partnership with the Lake County Farm Bureau are intended to increase drawing power and spark interest.

"It goes back to what's new at the fair. What it comes down to is a lot of people aren't going to say, 'I'm going to enter a pig.' Kids are all about technology," Vyfvinkel said of the film competition, whose theme is the play on words "A Fair to Remember."

"She was interested in coming up with a competition that was really modern," said Pat Zielinski, superintendent of the film competition, whom Vyfvinkel worked with in Chicago. "We love the tradition, but in order for that tradition to stay alive, we need the youth to invest in it."

Staying local

Agriculture defines all 104 county fairs, but efforts to adjust are universal.

"All the fairs try to keep up with stuff that's a little bit different," said Charlyn Fargo, chief of county fairs and horse racing for the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Harness racing, for example, was dropped from the Morgan County fair, she said, and the focus shifted to top musical acts.

Lake County is staying local in terms of musical entertainment but is introducing an array of other features to try to connect with the audience.

Competitions like pie eating, seed spitting or best mustache contests as well as roving bands of volunteers looking for the best or silliest of what strikes their fancy on "U-B-U Saturday" will broaden the palette and get the average fair-goer personally involved.

Got interesting body art? You could win a button. Got an urge to fiddle? Step onstage and join in an old-fashioned hootenanny.

And while it's hard to raise a steer, there are lots of backyard gardeners who will benefit from the blend of horticulture and agriculture offered at Chicago Flower & Garden Show.

In short, the county fair isn't your typical neighborhood festival, organizers say.

"It's based on agriculture. We want to keep that, but people unfamiliar with agriculture want something new and exciting, and we add that to the mix," said Jon Brodzik, who joined the fair association board in November as the newest member.

Events like the auto soccer, in which cars try to maneuver a 400-pound steel ball to score a goal, fits that bill.

"You can't go anywhere else to see that. It's totally different," Brodzik said.

'Unlimited potential'

Fair employees and directors have had more time to concentrate on improving the product as operations have become more structured and predictable.

Vyfvinkel, the former entertainment director at Navy Pier, was hired in March 2011 as the fair's first full-time professional business manager in reaction to a member revolt regarding chaotic finances and operations.

A shake-up included several new members on the Lake County Fair Association board, a private nonprofit that oversees the fairgrounds at Midlothian and Peterson roads in Grayslake. Those facilities opened in 2009 after more than 50 years at routes 120 and 45.

Beset by internal turmoil and with parking lots that turned to mud, poor weather and a main access road that wasn't completed, the impact of the new facility hasn't met expectations, and fair attendance has dropped each year.

Last year, an estimated 88,000 people attended the fair, down 17 percent from 106,000 in 2010. The largest attendance was 250,193 in 1998.

But the slate has been cleared, officials say, with expenditures reduced, loans being repaid and the fair being run like a business.

"The difference between now and the first fair (at the new location) is we have a handle on things," said Kelli Kepler-Yarc, the fair board president, whose family farms more than 1,300 acres throughout Lake County.

"It's definitely going in the right direction," Brodzik said. "We have unlimited potential."

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