Lake County Fair opening signals fresh start

After more than two years, the Lake County Fair Association is settled at its sprawling new digs on Peterson Road in Grayslake. But in some ways, the long-standing celebration of agriculture is starting fresh.

Much has changed internally since a scathing call for action at the annual meeting last November upended the organization.

Debts of about $4 million owed to contractors who worked on the sleek facilities at Midlothian Road finally have been paid.

The chaotic state of the fair's finances that led to the uproar has been rectified. A new board president has been installed.

And for the first time in its 83-year-history, a professional business manager is overseeing day-to-day operations at the facility that is used year round.

“Putting a New Spin on an Old Tradition” is the theme of this year's fair, which runs Tuesday through Sunday. The reference is to grandstand events, rides and quirky attractions — modern twists mixed with agricultural heritage.

But there is a deeper context, as well.

“The ‘new spin' is not so much the new fairgrounds but the new board, the new leadership ... they're back on track now,” said Greg Koeppen, manager of the Lake County Farm Bureau, who led the criticism of fair members at the annual meeting.

“So far, everything seems to be good, in my mind,” he said. ”Give them another chance.”

The big boost came in May when the association closed on a $6.5 million conventional loan — in essence, a new mortgage. That allowed for liens to be settled and a $2.3 million construction loan that had been due to be paid.

Aside from the mortgage and ongoing operating expenses, the fair is debt free, according to Rudy Magna, attorney for the fair association.

“We just concluded righting the ship with this financing,” he said.

The effect of satisfying its obligations to creditors, who admittedly were “very patient,” has been to make things more predictable and manageable, he added.

But it also means this year's fair is more one of tweaks than major changes.

“With the debt obligations they had, I think it couldn't help but affect the overall time they had to dedicate to fair matters,” Magna said.

There are no huge splashes planned, and local bands will be spotlighted in terms of entertainment. Organizers continue to hone the operation, however, as vendors and attractions have been added and the layout adjusted for better access.

Not-so-obvious changes include improved drainage for the grass parking areas and customer service training.

“A big smile goes a long way. We're going to do our best to welcome people this year,” said Sheri Vyfvinkel, business manager, who was director of entertainment at Navy Pier for six years before coming to the Lake County Fair.

“I've just seen firsthand how important their impressions are from the time they walk in,” until the time they leave, she added.

Organizers also hope a special admission price of $2 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on opening day Tuesday will kick start the festivities.

Though just a sliver of time in the year-round operation, the county fair accounts for about half the association's annual revenue. But attendance has dipped in recent years.

Last year's estimated attendance of about 100,000 was the second consecutive drop. That figure was about half the 204,275 who poured through the gates in 2004 at the old fairgrounds, which had operated for more than 50 years at routes 45 and 120.

A key this year is the extension of Midlothian Road and construction of adjoining walking/bike paths north to Route 137, which will give fairgoers another way in and out.

“Before this, Peterson Road was our only option,” said fair board President Mike Richards. “Peterson Road gets backed up with daily rush hour traffic, so they can avoid that and use the other access.”

What was described as substantial drainage work has been completed and gravel also has been strategically placed to provide a path should heavy rain turn the grassy areas to mud — a situation that last year led to many complaints.

Another change is the use of social media to reach a younger audience. The fair's Facebook site has been adding hundreds of “likes” daily and as of Friday stood at about 2,000.

“The effort to get the word out is very strong this year,” said Sue Markgraf, a public relations consultant. “That is significant this year in terms of outreach and awareness.”

Fairgoers may notice the main ticket booth remains unfinished, and a second exhibition building and a show barn in the original plans have not been built.

The fair continues its pursuit of a 40-year, $7.5 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to refinance the mortgage and fund those and other improvements.

“That will be another phase at another time. They have had a lot on their plates for the last four or five months,” Magna said.

The fair also has changed real estate firms to market adjoining property it owns on Peterson Road, though the value has dropped and the market remains tough.

Vyfvinkel, whose background includes event production, says the facilities are booked nearly every weekend during the year. The fair is on good financial footing, she added, and will continue to improve.

“I know what we can be and will be,” she said. “Give us five years and we'll be the best county fair in Illinois. This is a great space. There are a lot of people cheering for us.”

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  Midlothian Road has been extended to Route 137, adding a second way in and out of the Lake County Fairgrounds in Grayslake. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  Sheri Vyfvinkel, business manager of the Lake County Fair Association, predicts that in time, the Lake County Fair in Grayslake will be the best in Illinois. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  Lake County Fair Association Vice President Jerry Pretzman, left, President Mike Richards, and Treasurer Pete Tekampe discuss the 2011 Lake County Fair, which begins Tuesday. Gilbert R. Boucher II/