Transformation takes place at Manatee fairgrounds as fair approaches

nwilliams@bradenton.comJanuary 11, 2013 

PALMETTO -- Landscaping, painting, hauling and...

"An awful lot of cleaning," says Dan West, Manatee County's fair manager, while walking through the 32-acre fairgrounds Thursday.

With the 97th edition of the Manatee County Fair less than a week away, workers at the county fairgrounds have been extra busy transforming the facility to accommodate roughly 50 rides, dozens of food vendors, livestock, musical acts, games and thousands of visitors.

On Thursday, staff members were busy potting new plants at the entrance ways, mowing grass and setting up bleachers while trailer after trailer entered from all directions to deliver rides and food trucks. Inside the fair's office, the phone lines ring constantly as employees filter through piles of paperwork.

"People say, 'Hey, this is the two weeks of the year you work," West said with a laugh. "That used to bother me."

This year's theme is "Going Hollywood." The fairgrounds are being decorated with movie posters and life-size characters. The booths will also be decorated, and crews will build a custom replica of Hollywood's Walk of Fame to include sponsors.

West's staff has been preparing for this year's fair since 2012, discussing ways to improve operations. More than 100 volunteers need to be coordinated, inspections need to be scheduled and applications have to be approved. This week, it took nine dump trucks just to lay enough sand for cattle and pigs to stand on for the livestock show at the arena.

"It can get tedious," West said. "You have to measure where every ride will fit."

The first trailer arrived Sunday, and West has seen at least 150 since.

"You don't know when everyone is coming," he said. "We're not even half full."

The fair begins Thursday, Jan. 17 at 5 p.m. and ends Sunday, Jan. 27.

"I live for this every year," said Wylene Rickly, whose husband Bill became the fair manager in 1973. Bill has passed away but Wylene still assists in organizing the fair. The fair's main office has been named in his honor.

"What amazes me is how big the fair has grown," she said. "The arena going up, what a thrill that was to get that big facility."

In 1950, the city of Palmetto and the county swapped property rights for the fairgrounds. In 1968, the fair purchased 15 more acres from the city and in 1976, the county deeded more property to the fairgrounds.

West has been director of the county fair since 2003 and worked as assistant director for two years prior. Also the president of the Florida Federation of Fairs, he and other fair directors visit regions throughout the country to observe fairs. He said Florida has a style of its own that can't be duplicated.

"Agriculture is big here and we have that represented."

Food vendors come from as far as Ohio, and Rickly said some have been a part of the fair for decades. One family in particular has been a food vendor for 85 years.

"The younger generations come back," she said. "It's like your family coming back."

The transformation doesn't end when the fair officially begins Thursday. Throughout the week, West said crews will continually move and rearrange stages as acts change throughout the week.

Manatee's fair is routinely the first fair of the year on the West Coast of Florida, and West wants to set a standard.

"We try to and we hope it does," he said.

"We want to put our best foot forward."

Nick Williams, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7049. Twitter:@_1NickWilliams

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