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Department of Agriculture approves controversial dates for Northern Maine Fair

PRESQUE ISLE and HOULTON, Maine — The state has approved Northern Maine Fair organizers’ controversial request to hold their annual agricultural events and midway attractions in late June and early July this summer. The new fair dates, June 28-July 3, won’t overlap with the Houlton Agricultural Fair, scheduled for July 4-7, 2019, but are still expected to negatively affect attendance and revenue at both County events.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which regulates agricultural fairs in Maine, held a public hearing on the requested date change in Augusta on Nov. 14. During the hearing, representatives from the Northern Maine Fair Association argued for the change to the six days a full month earlier than the traditional nine fair dates in late July and early August. The change, they said, is needed to continue their professional relationship with Smokey’s Greater Shows, the vendor that provides carnival rides.

NMF officials said Smokey’s owners told them earlier that they would be providing a few midway rides for the Bangor State Fair from July 27-Aug. 5 this year, and thus would not be available for the Northern Maine Fair during their traditional dates.

Robby Driskill, general manager for Smokey’s Greater Shows, confirmed on Wednesday that Smokey’s has partnered with Fiesta Shows to bring midway rides to both the Bangor and Skowhegan fairs in 2019. The partnership, he said, will allow Smokey’s to receive $1.5 million in additional revenue each year, which will go toward repair of current rides and the possible purchase of newer rides.

Driskill noted that the success of Northern Maine Fair officials in obtaining new fair dates and their decision to remain with Smokey’s in the long term will put them in a better position to reap some of the benefits from the company’s partnership with Fiesta.

“In talking with Lynwood [Winslow, NMF president], he seems to understand that right now all fairs in Maine have to have more ways to generate revenue,” Driskill said. “Every fair that we contract with in Maine is going to benefit from us being able to invest more in Smokey’s.”

At a separate DACF hearing on Oct. 12, NMF officials sought to have the fair run from June 28 through July 6, but hearing officer Mari Wells-Eagar denied that request, explaining that the final three days would directly conflict with the Houlton Agricultural Fair.

While the new requested dates would end the day before the Houlton fair starts, Wells-Eager wrote in her latest decision that she still has concerns about the consecutive dates of the two fairs having a negative impact economically on both events. Because the two County agricultural fairs would run one right after the other, she wrote, they “will still have to compete against each other for income, attendees, participants, sponsors, advertisers and exhibitors …”

But she added that because the fairs would not be operating on the same dates, there are no provisions in state regulations that would authorize her to deny the Northern Maine Fair’s current request.

“For better or worse,” Wells-Eagar wrote, the rules governing her decision limit “consideration of the economic harm suffered by agricultural fairs in geographic proximity … to only those circumstances where the fairs operate ‘on the same dates.’”

Wells-Eagar wrote that she also has concerns regarding the Northern Maine Fair officials’ refusal to state whether they will continue to operate the midway rides for three days after July 3, out of their desire to still have a traditional nine-day event. NFM organizers indicated they did not intend to hold any agricultural activities between July 4 and July 7, 2019, but they “declined to answer questions about what activities [NMF] does plan to hold on those dates.”

DACF Communication Director John Bott said on Tuesday that it is “disappointing” that the NMF officials would not share what possible plans they have for after the June 28-July 3 timeframe. By law the fair is required to cease all agricultural activities after July 3, but he noted, that the state’s permit approval does not apply to activities such as the midway that might not be agricultural related.

“I would hope that this is not an attempt by the Northern Maine Fair to end their agricultural events on July 3, but still hold the midway afterward,” Bott said. “If that were to happen, it would likely affect our decisions regarding future fair date requests.”

Driskill stated that Smokey’s Greater Shows has not had discussions with NMF officials about whether they would remain in Presque Isle to provide midway rides after July 3.

“I cannot say that the conversation will never come up, but lately everyone has been more concerned with getting Presque Isle’s new dates approved,” Driskill said.

Paul Cleary, president of the Houlton Agricultural Fair, said Tuesday afternoon that he was “obviously disappointed” by the decision concerning the competing fair in Presque Isle.

“If you [use] common sense, [the request] should have been denied,” Cleary said. “They [NMF officials] would not give an answer for what they are going to do on those three days, so I firmly believe that Smokey’s will be sticking around those additional three days. They have basically skirted around the original denial.”

Cleary added that he was not going to waste any more energy fighting the date change and is instead trying to focus on ways to make the Houlton Agricultural Fair the best event it can be.

“We are really close to signing a new carnival,” he said. “We are also close to finalizing a really big event for June 28-30. It will be a huge event for the town of Houlton.”

Cleary said he could not specifically say what the event was, because it has not been finalized by the fair board. It also will not be under the umbrella of the Houlton Agricultural Fair, and therefore does not require any special state permission to hold, he said.

“I’m excited about next year, to be honest,” Cleary said. “If we can’t finalize a midway provider, we have some other ideas on things we can do. We are exploring all of our options.”

According to Driskill, he and Cleary first communicated via email in August when he asked if the Houlton Agricultural Fair organizers would want to move their 2019 dates from July 4-6 to mid-July. He said he later received an email and then a certified letter from Cleary stating the reasons behind Houlton’s decision to not move their fair dates.

“I don’t blame Houlton for not moving their dates. They have had their fair on the Fourth of July for years,” Driskill said. “I personally put some of the blame on myself for never contacting Paul by phone and talking to him more, but I wish Houlton the best of luck with their future fairs.”

Winslow said on Tuesday that the fair plans to honor its new agreement with DACF to not hold agricultural fair activities beyond July 3. But in order to replace some of the revenue that the organizers normally would receive from a nine-day fair they plan to schedule smaller events such as tractor pulls and 4-H events throughout the summer.

Though the fair association is currently three months behind on planning for the summer fair because of the issue with dates, Winslow said organizers plan to begin announcing events in early 2019. In the meantime, officials also will work to renew their harness racing license. The future of that annual event, Winslow noted, is still uncertain.

“Because the state denied our original date request, we had to withdraw our license for harness racing and let those dates go to other venues,” Winslow said. “We’ll have to contact those venues to see if they would possibly be willing to give up some of those dates, but that will be a hard thing to do. Most venues book a year in advance.”

Winslow also stated that even though the NMF has not been in touch with Smokey’s Greater Shows recently, they have a “good relationship” with the company and would prefer to continue that relationship in the coming years.

“Right now we’re only planning for next year’s fair but want to keep working with Smokey’s,” Winslow said. “They understand our need to generate more revenue than what a six-day fair can provide.”

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