The attendance figures for the 84th annual Lake County Fair, which ended a couple of weeks ago, won't knock anyone's socks off.
A total of 91,548 visitors, up about 2.8 percent from 89,000 a year ago, visited the sleek new fairgrounds on Peterson Road in Grayslake.
It's a modest increase, but an increase nonetheless that stopped an attendance slide that began in 2009 when the fair moved to its current location after 50 years at routes 120 and 45.
But the numbers offer some other signs as well. For one, things may be heading in the right direction at Lake County after weathering a few years of problems and financial chaos. And in a broader sense, they demonstrate to neighboring counties that the county fair, traditionally a signature event that helps foster appreciation for a region's history, identity and sense of community, remains a viable and vibrant proposition.
With a new professional, more businesslike and creative approach, the Lake County Fair Association tightened its fiscal belt and still pumped some new life into the annual event, nearly two years after the world seemed to be crashing down on the association board. Unfinished facilities, debts of about $4 million owed to contractors and a generally chaotic state of the fair's finances led to a public uproar on the board.
There was no wrongdoing by volunteer fair directors, critics said, just a lack of understanding about money coming in and money going out. The result was a shake-up that led to some board resignations and the eventual hiring of the fair's first full-time professional manager.
Sheri Vyfvinkel was hired in March 2011 to be the day-to-day manager at the fairgrounds.
Her experience is not rooted in agriculture, the fair's traditional focus. However, Vyfvinkel arrived after six years as director of entertainment at Navy Pier, with previous stops at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, and the Mayor's Office of Special Events in Chicago.
Her background in event production, logistics and budgeting has met critical needs.
With financial issues under control, fair officials concentrated on introducing some new attractions this year.
The livestock showings, craft and food competitions and carnival rides were still a big part of the fair, but visitors also were treated to a Sasquatch calling contest, a movie competition and the Chicago Flower & Garden Show.
We hope that creative approach is part of a continued evolution that mixes rural flavor with fun attractions and entertainment.
Vibrant, successful fairs are important in Lake County and all of the collar counties and beyond, where the events often are the biggest festival of the year for residents. Even more important, they represent decades of tradition and deep rural roots that should not be lost.