By Tim Cox
The face of the Mercer County Fair is changing, including the physical appearance of the fairgrounds, the lineup for the fair and the people making it happen.
At the center of much of the positive changes is Scott Riffle, who was hired several months ago as the fairgrounds manager. Although Riffle was hired specifically to market the fairgrounds on a year-round basis, his efforts will be evident when the fair kicks off Aug. 8.
The Banner Fair runs Aug. 8-14.
"Scott has been a tremendous asset to the fair so far," fair board President Steve Seitz said.
Riffle has successfully coordinated a number of improvements at the fairgrounds, many of them handled by volunteer groups. He also has succeeded in his main task to bring more events to the fairgrounds when the fair is not going on. "We're trying to instill some community ownership," Riffle said. "It's their fair, we want them to be involved, especially the kids."
The plan has worked. Youth who are members of 4-H clubs recently painted the inside of the Junior Fair building, where their various projects are displayed during fair week. During the fair, officials plan to kick off a $50,000 fund-raising campaign to put a drop ceiling in the building and possibly install air conditioning. The youth participants will be critical to that effort as well, Riffle said.
Volunteer groups also are caring for the flower beds at each entrance and around the Junior Fair building. The Fort Recovery FFA is taking care of the flower bed at the main gate while the Coldwater FFA chapter is handling other flower beds inside the fairgrounds. Nature's Green Nursery has volunteered to take care of the flower garden near the other entrance to the fairgrounds off Riley Street.
Fair officials also have forged relationships with other local groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts and the Celina Fraternal Order of Eagles lodge. Those groups have made critical donations that have helped improve the fairgrounds.
"Scott has been very well accepted by those groups who have been very generous with their donations," Seitz said.
Other fairgrounds improvements include the repainting of the old restroom facility, numbering of the seats in the grandstand and the refurbishing of some livestock barns. The Mercer County Harness Horsemen Association is in the midst of a vast overhaul of one of the speed barns while the county Cattlemen's Association has improved a cattle barn.
"It's really starting to snowball," Seitz said. "People see all the work getting done and they are volunteering their money and labor to help us get things done."
The results have paid off. People have noticed the improvements already, days before the fair even opens. Even Bob Nolan, a frequent critic of local government, went out of his way recently to heap praise on fair officials. Nolan called the newspaper office to compliment the efforts of Riffle, fair board members and the volunteer groups that have accomplished much of the work.
"It's really looking nice out there," Nolan said.
Riffle said that is the reaction he was hoping for.
"I'm a big believer that first impressions make a big impact on people," Riffle said.
Fair board members also have committed themselves to improving the fair in recent years. They have come up with a ticket pricing structure they believe maximizes attendance and have taken other steps to make the fair a more enjoyable place to visit. All entertainment in front of the grandstand is free with admission to the fairgrounds, which has proven successful, Seitz said.
Seitz, an eight-year veteran of the fair board, said he believes the fair has steadily improved throughout his tenure on the board.
Fair officials also are extremely satisfied with Cumberland Valley Amusements, the ride company that will be making its third trip to Mercer County this year. The company packs the fair midway with nearly two dozen rides.
"Everybody praised the ride company, so we brought them back," Seitz said.
The fair board's plan to make the fairgrounds a year-round destination also is working out. The fairgrounds recently played host to more than three dozen campers, some of whom have already reserved spots for next summer. A number of additional events also have been scheduled.
The fairgrounds hosted a pork chop dinner and hot air balloon launch during the recent Celina Lake Festival with several more events on tap in the coming months. An American Motorcycle Association-sanctioned race is set for late September with a three-day chili cook-off and festival slated for early October. A Halloween-based campout also is being put together for October.
The Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure -- along with 3,000 riders -- will come to the fairgrounds next summer along with a potential firefighters convention.
"The more the fairgrounds is used, the more people will come back for future events," Seitz said.