Montgomery County Fair says goodbye, hello

By Tim Walker

Mention summer to any longtime resident of the Buckeye State, and a few scenes might quickly come to mind: fields of growing corn, sudden thunderstorms, farmers markets, fireworks, and—of course—a trip to the county fair.

Attendees at this year’s 165th Montgomery County Fair, however, will find themselves at an event that seems to have come to a crossroads—while the fair may look and feel the same, it is in the midst of some radical changes. For starters, the fair will be held this year from July 10-15, as opposed to its usual week that always fell closer to Labor Day. Additionally, and in a move that has drawn more than its share of criticism, this will be the fair’s final year at the familiar Montgomery County Fairgrounds.

The fairgrounds, 37 acres on South Main Street in Dayton, has been attracting fun-loving crowds as the home of the annual Montgomery County Fair for well over a century now. Over the course of those years, the fairgrounds has also been a home to many other events, and it has undergone some major changes, from the construction of the much-beloved “Roundhouse” back in 1874 to the expansion of the race track and grandstands decades ago. Many local residents might fondly recall the annual book sales held there, the chili cook-offs and fundraisers, and perhaps the series of X-Fest rock music festivals that were held there annually between 2001 and 2011, all of which drew throngs of people to the easily accessible location.

On the heels of this past spring’s $15-million sale of the fairgrounds to the duo of Premier Health and the University of Dayton, this year’s fair will be the final one held on the familiar site.

“The new date, that is now normal,” says John Yancik, president of the Agricultural Society Board, administrators of the annual Montgomery County Fair, “as opposed to the holiday week, the end of August going into September. We’re getting away from school, and we’re getting away from the holiday.” The change, according to the Agricultural Society Board, will have a number of benefits, one of which is making fair time easier for the county’s young people, many of whom raise livestock to be judged at the fair. With the old schedule, many of them would find themselves returning to school before the fair even took place, which made attendance and the opportunity to be recognized for their hard work much more difficult.

“It’s going to be entirely different,” Yancik continues. “The whole schedule for the week is different. And what we’re used to—Wednesday through Monday—now we’re going to be doing on Monday through Saturday night. I won’t say everything is different, but I will say that 80 percent of it is going to be different.”

The 2017 Montgomery County Fair will begin on Monday, July 10. Gates will open at 8 a.m., and the fair officially starts at 10:30 a.m. with this year’s opening ceremony. The first day of the fair, as in years past, also features half-price admission for the public, with $4 getting you into the fair for the entire day. Admission increases to the regular $8 on Tuesday, July 11, and the entertainment for that day includes Tug-A-Truck in the grandstands, always a crowd favorite. The fair is, of course, open to all ages, with gates open from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. each day. Rides will operate from 1-5 and 6-10 p.m. daily, and armbands (good for unlimited rides) will cost $20 each.

The $8 admission includes all entertainment (except rides) in front of the grandstands and entertainment tent—the Cincinnati Circus and a big dog demonstration, to name a couple.

On Wednesday, July 12, the scheduled entertainment features the Dark County Truck and Tractor Pull Association (DCTPA) event. Thursday highlights include the popular harness racing, making use of the familiar racetrack, easily seen from Main and Stewart Streets. On Friday, July 14, Travis Kushner and the Rolling Stone Rodeo, based in Cincinnati, provide the featured entertainment. Both have performed thrilling, crowd-pleasing shows for the last several years. Then, on Saturday, the fair’s final day, the “Here-hold-my-beer” thrills of the Demolition Derby take place in the grandstands one last time. The derby starts at 7 p.m. Saturday and promises to close out the week with a genuine bang.

“They bring a heck of a following,” Yancik says. “And by us now being earlier in the fair season than in years past, people will have cars to destroy. When you get later in the season, you find that people run out of cars.”

But why the change? Why is this the last year for the fairgrounds? Where is the fair moving?

The county, as readers may recall, issued a request for proposals last year to transform the fairgrounds from its current status into a mixed-use urban development, which would offer approximately 600 housing units as well as retail, dining, and office space. The minimum bid for the rights to own and develop the fairgrounds was $15 million, and in September 2016 two developers, Dayton-based Miller-Valentine Group and Terre Haute, Indiana-based Thompson Thrift, submitted proposals. For several months, the administrators of the Fairgrounds reviewed those without making a decision, and then on Nov. 20, 2016, the county issued a press release rejecting both proposals.

A month later, at a press conference held at the fairgrounds in December 2016 by representatives from the city of Dayton, Montgomery County, and the Montgomery County Agricultural Society, it was announced that the combined team of Premier Health and the University of Dayton would purchase the site. Premier Health is a medical network with five hospitals and two major health centers in the Dayton area, one of which—Miami Valley Hospital—is located directly across from the fairgrounds on Main Street.

The sale met with some criticism, but county officials have insisted that the sale was in the best interests of the fair and of the community, as well. Greg Wallace, executive director of the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, agrees.

“There’s a park in Jefferson Township,” Wallace says. “It’s owned by the county and it’s called Arthur O. Fisher Park. It’s been there since the late ’70s, I believe. A big chunk of it, on the western side of it, has never been developed. And we’re going to get that part of it, and the middle part for the new fairgrounds. And the eastern part of it, the developed part, will remain Arthur Fisher Park. So the park will still be there, we’ll just be on the site, only taking up space that hasn’t been utilized in the past, not for a long time.”

When asked what changes the move may present to the fair’s schedule in the future, Yancik and Wallace agree that no one is sure at this point.

“We don’t know at this point,” Yancik says. “We know it will be the second week in July. But as far as what our calendar will be out there, that’s all up for discussion after we get through with this year’s fair. We’re going to have groundbreaking out there the first of August, and we hope to have buildings up, and our office, and the extension office moved out there by April or May of next year. Then, of course, the 2018 fair will be held out there. We’ll have a grandstands ready, but in phase one we will not have a horse track— although we will have a horse barn for 4-H horses. We hope to have a nice riding arena for those horses and for those kids who will be showing them.”

With the change of dates, the upcoming move, and the sale of the fairgrounds attracting so much attention this year, one key fact can get buried by the headlines. For an agricultural state like Ohio, and for a population as close to the earth as our farm communities remain, the fair is more than just something to do; it’s a cherished and time-honored family tradition. Rural families have been traveling together to the County Fair for centuries. The raising and showing of livestock, the judging of produce and quilts, of pies and canned goods, of horse riding skills and rabbits, the presenting of blue ribbons: all of these rituals continue family legacies that have survived generations.

“I grew up at the fair. I took my kids to the fair,” says local writer and television personality Jim Bucher, who also works with the fair in a marketing capacity. “It is sort of—and I hate using this word because people use it all the time—but it is sort of bittersweet, that after 160-plus years it’s moving its location. At first, I was a little reluctant… I thought, It’s part of our history, and the Wright Brothers were there, and the homecoming parade, and all the great events, and President Lyndon Johnson was there. But then I think that times have changed, and agriculture is out there and it’s not really around the fairgrounds anymore. Out in Jefferson Township there’s a lot of land, and there’s room for growth…”

The 165th Montgomery County Fair takes place July 10-15. Gates are open from 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. daily, and admission is $8. Monday, July 10, is discount day, with a $4 admission fee. For a full fair schedule and more information, please visit MontCoFair.com.

What’s next for the Montgomery County Fairgrounds?

When the $15-million sale of the Montgomery County Fairgrounds to Premier Health and the University of Dayton was announced late last year, a number of questions immediately arose, with “Where will the fair be held in the future?” and “What’s going to happen to the fairgounds site now?” at the forefront of the minds of many Daytonians.

The future of the 165-year-old Montgomery County Fair itself appeared to be in a state of limbo for many months, while the Agricultural Society Board searched for a new home. A possible site near Brookville was considered, as was a site near Huber Heights, and expectations were high in both instances. Negotiations dragged on, however, and the sites were eventually rejected before the decision was finally announced earlier this year: beginning the second week of July 2018, the Montgomery County Fair would occupy a new site on the grounds of the Arthur O. Fisher Park, located on Dayton-Liberty Road in Jefferson Township. The 150-acre site provides more than enough room for development to house the County Fair long into the future, while still maintaining the publicly used park and recreation areas.

Although, according to the original terms of the sale, the Agricultural Society was bound to vacate the premises of the fairgrounds in October 2017, the new owners granted a lease extension, allowing the Agricultural Society to remain on the property until April 2018. This will prove beneficial to both parties: the Agricultural Society will be able to stay at its current home until its new home at Arthur Fisher Park is ready to be occupied, and the new owners of the fairgrounds site will have more time to plan their future development of the property.

Which brings us to that second question on everyone’s mind: What will happen to the Fairgrounds now?

At this point, the University of Dayton and Premier Health have been quiet about their plans for development of the new site. The two entities did form a joint venture—Fairgrounds Redevelopment, Ltd.—to redevelop the property, and they are still determining how to best utilize their new acquisition. “Premier Health and the university are taking steps to redevelop the property in a collaborative manner,” says Buddy LaChance, director of campus planning and real estate for Premier Health, in a recent statement. “In the meantime, we are pleased to do what we can to make this a smooth transition.”

Happily for many, certain fixtures of the current fairgrounds site will be preserved. For example, included in the joint venture’s purchase of the historic property was an allocation of $2 million from Montgomery County for the preservation of the Roundhouse, a distinctive building which, during the County Fair, displays a selection of blue ribbon-winning desserts, artwork, and produce.

The partnership has announced it is in the early stages of a national search for a planning firm to engage with Premier Health, the university, the community, and other stakeholders to help develop a master plan for the site. The initial request for proposals from the county last year called for potential developers to transform the fairgrounds from its current status into a mixed-use urban development that would offer approximately 600 housing units as well as a variety of retail, dining, and office space.

While the future of the County Fair itself seems secure with the announcement of the new location site in Jefferson Township and plans for development of the recently sold fairgrounds on Main Street, one question has yet to be answered: How will the nearby communities be affected? And that answer remains to be seen.

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Tim Walker
Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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