Resurrection: Missoula County discussing return of fair board – The Missoulian

It looks like the Western Montana Fair board that was dissolved by Missoula County commissioners more than eight years ago is on its way back.

Current commissioners have had a preliminary conversation to reinstate the board, Commissioner Nicole Rowley indicated Monday after a special informational session of the Missoula County Fairgrounds Advisory Committee, or McFAC.

A new fair board can’t technically be called a “fair board,” said Chris Lounsbury, the county’s chief operating officer. It won’t have its own budget as the old one did because state law prohibits that these days.

“But the idea is really to go back to the same sort of thing, to meet monthly but to truly look at planning the fair event – everything from looking at acts to working with the stock contractor and working with folks to provide different food concessions,” Lounsbury said. “Hands-on things, very similar to what the fair board used to do.”

McFAC has worked since its inception nearly five years ago to develop a long-term plan for the fairgrounds. It’s expected in the next few months to arrive at a preferred concept to present commissioners. But in recent meetings the committee has expressed the need to have a companion panel to focus on the fair itself.

Gary Koepplin, former manager of the Ravalli County Fair, seconded that notion Monday.

“I’ve been involved with fairs for a number of years, and I feel very strongly that this fair needs a fair board,” Koepplin told the advisory committee. “It was a big mistake to take it away, and it would be an even bigger mistake not to re-implement it. The commissioners cannot do it fast enough, in my opinion.”

Rowley and fellow commissioners Jean Curtiss and Stacy Rye have already discussed the idea once. Lounsbury said he has been working with fairgrounds director Todd Garrett on bylaws.

“The hope is that sometime in February we’ll meet again with the commissioners and, if they approve it, we’ll get going on it in the latter part of February or early March,” Lounsbury said.

A board of five to seven members should be in place before this year’s fair in August, but 2016 would be “more of a learning experience,” Lounsbury said.

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Curtiss and outgoing commissioner Barbara Evans voted in August 2007 to disband the board that had helped fair managers put on the annual August event since 1954. Bill Carey voted against the move, suggesting instead the board be expanded from seven to 21 members.

The move came after the fair board developed an ill-fated master plan and in the midst of an insurrection that led to the resignation of fairgrounds staff members and board chairman Buck Smith.

It left fair managers – or fairgrounds directors, as they’re called now – to shoulder the bulk of the burden of fair planning and consummation.

“Admittedly, I can keep making these decisions and forging forward,” said Garrett, who’s in the midst of preparations for his third Missoula fair. “But the one thing I realize is all fairs have this type of thing behind them and (at) the ones that really work, what the fair managers tell me is, ‘I don’t know how you do it without (a board). They’re such an important resource and connection to the community.’

“When I hear those kinds of stories I get real excited.”

Commissioners in late 2010 created the fairgrounds advisory committee, which meets monthly in a public forum. Planning for the fair event itself is aided by a group of concessionaires and superintendents, and Garrett said their input has led to restroom upgrades and trash-removal procedures. But they’re not reviewing contracts or making official recommendations as a fair board would. And when fair week arrives, they all have their own commitments to focus on.

A fair board, or more accurately a fair committee, would help Garrett with the endless details of planning and running a fair.

“As far as having a group making phone calls and brainstorming solutions … that falls to me right now,” Garrett said.

Even more important, he added, is “having a group of people who believe in the fair and believe in the betterment of the fair and their community.” 

“It’ll be a broader connection between the fair and the community because it’ll be a fair community again.”