A day of fried food and rides at the Orange County Fair could take more money out of families’ pockets this summer, as fair officials say admission price increases are on the table for adoption this week.
The proposed change is among a series of issues prompting some nearby homeowners and locals to question whether the fair is losing its way as a callback to the county’s farming and agricultural roots and instead drifting toward a Disneyland-like business venture focused on vendor contracts, concerts, and being a major event venue.
The Board of Directors for the state-run fair agency, known officially as the OC Fair and Events Center, is expected to vote on one of this summer’s price increase proposals by staff — which range from $1-2 increases for adults and special deals — at their Thursday public meeting.
Costa Mesa resident Flo Martin said she’s lived just a few blocks away from the fairgrounds for more than 50 years. Observing the fair’s history, she said it’s “pretty obvious the fair has become more focused on concerts and big events” as opposed to being a “neighborhood gathering place for all of Orange County.”
Considering the rising cost of living in the county, Martin said fair prices shouldn’t go up “one cent,” adding she’d like to see the OC Fair incorporate more agriculture and animal husbandry than what she’s seeing, and more actual community spaces like a park and picnic area in place of one of the parking lots.
“Make it more of a destination for families,” regardless of income level, she said. “The fairgrounds should not be run as an entrepreneurial venture.”
The OC Fair last year saw a total attendance of 1.4 million people, with total food revenues of nearly $30 million and ride revenues of around $15 million.
By comparison, the San Diego and Los Angeles county fairs both saw fewer food and ride revenues that year despite having higher ticket prices, said then-newly-appointed OC Fair and Events Center CEO Michele Richards at the Fair Board’s last meeting in December.
The last set of ticket price increases happened in 2016.
Fair staff have argued the ticket price increases are necessary due to shifting regional economic forces, like rising labor costs as a result of minimum wage increases.
A number of different scenarios for ticket price increases are laid out in this staff report for Thursday’s meeting, many of which include $1 price increases but one of which includes an increase by as much as $2 for adults on the weekdays.
Another scenario proposed by staff is to increase parking rates by $1.
Richards wasn’t available for comment Tuesday. Sandra Cervantes, the chair for the Board of Directors that sets the fair agency’s policies, said she couldn’t talk over the phone and didn’t respond to emailed questions.
“We are still way below the prices being charged by San Diego and Los Angeles,” said Fair Board Director Ashleigh Aitken. “When you factor in all the ways our customers can get in for reduced or no cost, we have consistently demonstrated a commitment to keep our county fair accessible to all families.”
While fair staff are concerned about rising labor costs, observers say there are other areas the agency can cut down on in its operations to save resources and maximize revenue.
For starters, the fair season in Orange County is 23 days.
“It’s too long,” said fairgrounds watchdog Reggie Mundekis.
“There’s a number of questions about the wisdom of that,” Mundekis said, adding that while the agency uses up resources to operate over that period of time, “paid admission might not be high enough to justify keeping the fair open that long” with all the special deals and discounts the fair offers.
The fair has typically drawn guests from around the region for its relative cheapness in comparison to more pricey attractions like Disneyland in Anaheim and Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park — something that Vincent Pollmeier, director for the Friends and Neighbors of the Orange County Fairgrounds watchdog group, said is something the fairgrounds “always tends to benchmark itself against.”
Richards previously told Voice of OC that the price increases would be geared toward people who decide to go to the fair “spur-of-the-moment” and would be willing to spend the cash, and that for people of lower-income and working class families, the special deals and discounts will remain an option.
Pollmeier said that when tacking the cost of a ticket on top of food, transportation, and paid parking, the day reaches a price point where for families of multiple children, “it’s not a whim to go, it’s a major cash investment.”
“As something that’s supposed to be a celebration of Orange County’s agricultural heritage, it’s really shortsighted to put yourself at a price point to where you can’t serve a major segment of the population,” he added.
Costa Mesa City Councilman Manuel Chavez in a phone interview recalled going to the fair “once a summer, growing up” and spending “no more than what you had” had on a “hot dog, two rides” — things that were “within our means.”
He said he knew little about the proposed price increases until Voice of OC contacted him, calling the proposal, “on face value, disappointing.”
“You want the fair to be accessible to everybody,” he said. “I never went broke going to the fair, I just spent what I had.”
As time goes by, the fair is also looking less and less like Orange County, Pollmeier said.
“There’s no ‘OC’ in the OC Fair anymore,” which now lacks “local color,” he said. “If you plop someone down in the middle of the fair, they would be hard pressed to tell whether they’re in Del Mar or Los Angeles.”
That comes from a “lack of local people actual selling at the fair as concessionaires and vendors,” Mundekis said. “The local people get the minimum wage, five-week jobs. But the majority, if not all of your concessionaires selling food and merchandise, are from places other than OC.”
One of those food and beverage contractors is Spectra, an entertainment company owned by the telecommunications giant Comcast Corp., based out of Pennsylvania.
The company’s contract with the fairgrounds to provide food, beverage and alcohol services was worth around $2 million last year.
“Our application process is open to everyone and our staff is always trying to keep the offerings new and fresh,” said Aitken, whose father, Wylie, is the chair of the governing board for Voice of OC. “Unfortunately, most local restaurants can’t operate their local establishment, and simultaneously staff a satellite location for 14-16 hours a day during fair time.”
It also costs money for businesses to rent out a space at the fair. Some outside spaces, depending on their size, can cost more than $7,000.
Mundekis said another part of the problem is that the fair only represents one segment of the Orange County population: white people.
“Orange County has changed remarkably from a demographic standpoint from the last 20 years,” Mundekis said, pointing to different non-white ethnic communities that have set up in the county.
She added: “There’s no reason for them to go to the fair because they’re not adequately reflected in the fair’s food, merchandise and entertainment.”
The county’s diverse range of cuisine “is not represented,” Pollmeier said. “Instead we get giant fried turkey legs, just like in other fairs” in states on the other side of the country.
“The fairgrounds has lost the idea that they are part of a state government meant to serve the people of Orange County,” Mundekis said. “And instead got into the idea that they’re a business and are meant to operate like a business, and local residents and businesses are priced out of being able to participate.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.