Nonprofit crew making strides at Enumclaw Expo Center

Enumclaw Expo Center

A grand experiment is playing out at the Enumclaw Expo Center, one that could have long-term implications for the iconic venue that has boasted great successes in years gone by but fallen on hard times during the past decade.

A nonprofit group has taken the reins of leadership, buoyed by the belief that a small, single-minded group can do what the city could not – that is, make the spacious grounds on the city’s eastern fringe a financial success.

Enumclaw’s old-timers – in fact, anyone who was around two decades ago – will recall when the King County Fairgrounds was often the place to be. The annual fair brought crowds that jammed the midway, lined up for rides and turned out in big numbers for live entertainment. Summertime concerts were known to draw crowds in the tens of thousands. And few will forget when Lollapalooza came to town.

A major development came when King County offered the venue to the city of Enumclaw, an offer that was snapped up. A second turning point was more evolutionary, as the county lost faith in the fair and, accordingly, gradually chopped funding until the fair was in its death throes.

When the city took ownership of the fairgrounds – including the historic fieldhouse, the football field and RV park – it also landed a $2 million gift. The county provided a million for capital operations and another million to keep programs rolling until the city had a firm grasp on day-to-day operations.

But the city struggled. The money trickled away, the fair dwindled dramatically from its glory days and it became apparent a new leadership model was necessary.

Citizen input is called for

About a year ago, the Enumclaw City Council turned to the public, calling on volunteers who brought an array of experience to the table.That group – the seven-member Expo Advisory Committee – kicked around ideas and heard from prospective suitors, including one entrepreneur who proposed turning the Expo Center into a year-round flea market.

In the end, the committee proposed that the city solicit bids from nonprofit groups that would not assume ownership of the grounds, but would operate independent of the city. The City Council agreed, the call for bids went out and two offers were received. The first was rejected because it didn’t accurately address the city’s goals.

The second bid came from within. The Expo Advisory Committee morphed into a smaller group, the Enumclaw Expo and Events Association, which landed a deal with the city. That group is governed by a board of directors that includes Shelly DeVol, Richard Corella, Mike Maryanski, Kevin Wright and Rene Popke.

A new year, a new direction

The dawn of 2015 brought new faces but similar funding. When they pulled together a spending plan for the year, members of the council agreed to fund the Expo Center operation for seven months while the citizen group gets its footing.

Aside from the money, the city hired Scott Gray – who had been part of the Expo Advisory Committee – to run the Expo Center show.

Gray said there are experts throughout the area who believe the Expo Center can operate successfully. Members of the Washington State Fair Association are a close-knit group intent on seeing each other succeed, Gray said. During the past year, members of the WSFA were consulted and all agreed the Enumclaw venue has the potential to again be great.

But turning the corner and aiming for success will not be easy, Gray acknowledges. It will take salesmanship and organization while attracting new customers – all while catering to the needs of important guests like the Scottish Highland Games and Olympic Kennel Club.

Local control returns to the fair

The King County Fair was pushed to the brink of extinction, struggled to find a sense of identity and was finally turned over to Universal Fairs. Universal, based in Tennessee, has events throughout the nation.

But bigger didn’t necessarily mean better and the number of fair fans clicking through the turnstiles suffered.

Last year’s King County Fair recorded an attendance of just 7,600, Gray said. During the halcyon days of the fair, figures climbed in excess of 70,000.

So, the nonprofit group decided to operate the 2015 fair itself, already armed with a vendor list from past years.

But just because some of the names are familiar, visitors shouldn’t expect to see a copy of last year’s event. Gray and his group are looking to expand fair offerings and have renewed a commitment to local 4-H, he said.

Convinced they be successful, volunteers are hoping to see a growing number of guests stroll through the gates during this year’s four-day run, July 16-19. And while they’re on the grounds, those guests will be given ample opportunity to spend their discretionary dollars.

Gray points out the simple math behind any fair. Guests at many fairs will spend, on average, more than $20 per person; last year, in Enumclaw, fair visitors spent, on average, $7.25.

When more people attend and spend more money, there will be additional funds committed to improving the Expo Center facilities, Gray said.And that could be the crucial step in the venue’s rebirth.

The good news for now, Gray said, is “we’re climbing up instead of spiraling down.”