Mike Bruner is the manager of the Grays Harbor County fair. The annual fair kicks off on Wednesday and runs through Sunday.
What’s new at the fair this year?
We try our best to create balance between traditional and new and exciting attractions.
The headliner entertainment on the Pepsi Stage is all new, starting with the award-winning country singer Clay Walker, on Wednesday. On Thursday, we have Danny Whyms performing his “Tribute to the Fabulous Johnny Cash”. Friday, we have the very popular local band Humptulips on the main stage and we’re promoting that as kind of a barn dance, of sorts. We will be pulling out the Golden Circle seats that night to create a dance floor in front of the stage where fairgoers can dance to all of the hits that the band covers. On Saturday after the car races, which are free with paid fair admission, we’ve brought in a band called the Arch Allies that we discovered in Las Vegas. They perform a nationally-renowned tribute act to REO Speed Wagon, Styx and Journey. All of the ’80s rock fans will be shocked at how much they sound like the real thing.
Our selection process for our music is actually more complicated than what people might think. Our primary goal is to offer the highest quality entertainment as we can to our fair attendees. But we, of course, have a budget we need to stay within. The last few years acquiring big name entertainers has become pretty competitive. The first thing we look for is a hot new artist that fits our demographic, which is primarily country or country rock. Our Fair has a reputation for landing musical performers that are on their way up. Dierks Bentley, Clint Black, Tim McGraw and Kelly Pickler, just to name a few. If we can’t find a hot “up and comer” in our price range, we look for an act that had made it big at one time, has a lot of recognizable hits, but might not be as “in demand” as they once were. Craig Morgan and Little River Band are a couple of examples of such performers. The other thing we look to see is if the entertainer is routed in our area. That directly affects the price that we will pay to bring them here. We are very lucky to have a good working relationship with an award-winning booking agency from Nashville, called Romeo Entertainment. They do a great job of helping us acquire these acts. Once we have secured our main headliner, we fill in from there. This year we are very excited about our line-up.
We’ve also brought in some new food vendors that have some crazy fair food on their menus. Pretty much deep fried everything. Another new attraction that will be here are these huge clear plastic balls that people can get inside and walk on water. It’s kind of hard to explain, I guess people will just have to show up to the fair to see this one. New grounds and small stage acts include: Las Vegas Larry the Cable Guy, a Larry the Cable Guy impersonator; Paul Isaak, who has a great comedic juggling and magic act and Penelope the Clown. As far as the grounds go, we have and beautiful big, new Grange and Ag. Building. Kevin Varness, from the County Public Services Department deserves the credit for making this building a reality. It’s incredible. The old one collapsed in the snow and ice storm a couple of years ago and we are very happy to finally have it replaced.
What are some time-honored traditions of the Grays Harbor Fair that will continue this year?
There, of course, will be all of the traditional animal exhibits, as well as crafts and hobby, fine arts, home arts, flowers, agriculture, photography, FFA and 4H exhibits ... Plus all of the commercial vendors. The popular kids’ petting zoo is back, and the Redneck Olympics, which we still need participants for. The awesome Davis Carnival rides and midway games, and my favorite, the food booths, are also back with all of the crazy fair cuisine.
What are some of your favorite treats at the fair?
Fair week is the one week of the year when I completely throw any thoughts of eating healthy out the window. I love the food at the fair. My favorite fair treat is the traditional hand-dipped corn dogs. But they have to be hand-dipped ... Not the frozen kind. The gyros are awesome. Carmel apples, scones ... It’s all good. I mostly just like the variety. We are lucky to have some very quality food vendors at our fair.
How did you become fair director? What are some favorite parts of your job?
I was hired as the Fairgrounds Director in 2009 and then appointed as the County Tourism Manager, as well, in 2010. The position had been open and I was really intrigued by it. I was working in the Parks and Recreation field at the time and I really loved what I did. So, originally I wasn’t sure if I was going to apply. Unfortunately, in some ways and fortunately in other ways, budget cuts threatened the existence of the department I worked at, so it became obvious it was time to look for a new career. At this point in time, I’m very glad I pursued this position. It closely resembles working in the Parks & Recreation field. You have the satisfaction of knowing that your work helps people enjoy life and that there is a socially redeeming value to what you do for a living. I work with so many awesome people, who are all very passionate about what they do and about creating something that their community can enjoy.
Our staff, the Fair Board, department superintendents and volunteers are incredible people! I feel privileged to even have had the opportunity to meet these people. They are more valuable to their community than they realize. It is also awesome to get to work with youth development programs like 4-H, FFA and others. My favorite part of this job is that at every fair you have a moment that you see people having a fun time and enjoying life. There is just a really, really good feeling at that moment that I can’t really put into words. It doesn’t matter how tired you are at that point, or how many hours you’ve been putting in each day. At that moment there is an energy boost and a motivation that is indescribable. I’ll never forget when that moment hit me at my first fair. It was during one of the headliner concerts and the singer had the crowd on their feet. A lot of people were actually standing on their chairs. I was standing on one of the back bleachers just looking at the crowd and how much fun people were having. At that point in time, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I knew that was what the fair was all about and that I was really blessed to be doing something I really enjoyed for a living. It’s called the “Fair Bug”. I think we all have it.
Any frustrations this year in fair preparations, or has it gone pretty smoothly?
There are always frustrations and challenges during the planning and operation of every fair. There are literally thousands of things that need to come together and happen just right for the fair to operate how it needs to. It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how good your planning and preparation is. Inevitably, with events as big as the fair, there are going to be things that don’t go as planned and things that happen that are out of your control. You have to focus on controlling the controllables. And you just have to keep a good attitude about things and problem solve. If you go into it thinking everything will work out just as you originally planned, you’re going to get really frustrated. Problem solving and making adjustments are just part of the job.
The only real frustration I have, at this point, related to the fair is that it seems like there are a million things to do and our staff and resources are limited. It’s hard knowing how hard our staff and volunteers are working to offer a good fair for our community and that, unfortunately, the general public, doesn’t see the effort that these awesome people put into the fair. It’s also frustrating, and I feel badly, that there are some kids and families that might be having a tough time who can’t afford to come to the fair. We try to make it as affordable as we can, but other than a small infusion of tourism-generated revenue that we help create funding from the State Department of Agriculture and sponsorship assistance from our very valued sponsors, we are a self-sustaining department. So, in order to stay in business, we have to meet certain revenue projections to cover costs. We offer a free admission hour on Sunday morning and have established programs like “Families to the Fair” to help make it so more people can experience the fair.
What is one reason that people should make the trek out to the Grays Harbor Fairgounds for the festivities this year?
I would hope the reason that people make the trek to the Grays Harbor County Fair is that, first and foremost, they have fun and enjoy themselves when they are here. Our goal is to create great memories. I am proud that we have so many loyal fairgoers that keep coming back year after year. We try to offer a quality fair experience, for a reasonable price. The value of the experience, and keeping it affordable to as many people in our community that we can, have been a big focus for us the past few years.
How did you come up with the theme, “Country Nights and Carnival Lights,” and how will it be used it the fair?
Our theme, Country Nights and Carnival Lights might be my favorite since I’ve been here. I can’t even begin to take credit for it though. We have kind of a nomination process to select the Fair theme. Our department superintendents and the Fair Board are highly involved in that process and ultimately the ones who make that decision. Staff also makes nominations and if there are some themes that are presented that staff and I don’t care for, we try to weed those out. But the Fair is about all of the people who help make it happen and for them to have buy in and pride of ownership, it’s important that they be heavily involved in selecting the Fair theme.
How much time does it take for you and your staff to prepare for the one-week long fair?
It is literally impossible to project how much time it takes to prepare for the one-week of fair. There are so many people involved and the preparation never seems to stop. Honestly, I don’t know if I would really want to know. Or want staff to know (hahaha). There are countless hours that go into it.
Though we are a year-round event center and plan for many other big events at the fairgrounds in a calendar year, planning and preparation for the fair never stops. For example, we are already in the process of trying to nail down our headlining singer for the 2014 Fair. I just know there’s a lot of hours invested and then the next thing you know ... It’s Sunday at 6 p.m., the fair is over, you are announcing on the PA system that the fair has come to a close and then you are finalizing attendance numbers. Then it starts all over again.
Fire District 5 cut fire education and first aid for the fair in its budget; do you have another agency providing first aid?
As far as I am aware, Fire District 5 is planning to be at the fair. Regardless of their budget and their situation, they are a valued member of the fair team. Somehow and someway, as long as they would like to be here, we will help make that happen.
Last year’s fair saw 63,106 visitors, which is better than it has seen in the past several years. What is the estimated attendance this year? How do you make your estimates?
Last year’s Fair attendance of 63,106 shattered the old attendance record. It’s a little unrealistic to go into this year’s fair thinking we will hit those numbers again and we certainly don’t want to project our budget revenues based on those kinds of attendance numbers. I tried to identify the reason or reasons that we had such a great attendance last year. In the end, I feel like it was a variety of contributing factors. But in all honesty, the single biggest factor that affects fair attendance is completely out of our control. And that’s the weather. As long as the weather is good (knock on wood), and the marketing plan we used last year realizes the same level of success, I’m hopeful that we can hit 60,000 this year. Realistically, if we land above the 58,000 mark, I think we will all be happy.
Lastly, I want to thank all of our sponsors for making the fair possible. Without all of them there is no way the Fair could be offered at the capacity and quality that it currently is.