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Originally published October 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 21, 2008 at 9:17 AM

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Sims proposes to shut down King County Fair

The King County Fair survived the Civil War, the Great Depression and two world wars. But now, because of declining attendance and an ailing county budget, its days may be numbered.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The King County Fair survived the Civil War, the Great Depression and two world wars.

But now, because of declining attendance and an ailing county budget, its days may be numbered.

King County Executive Ron Sims has proposed shutting down the 145-year-old Enumclaw event, which bills itself as the oldest county fair west of the Mississippi River.

It's one of hundreds of belt-tightening measures Sims recommended Monday to the Metropolitan King County Council in his 2009 budget proposal.

Closing the fair would save $315,000 in a budget that must be cut by $93 million.

Sims said that for years he resisted suggestions that the fair be closed. But its continuing decline convinced him it was time to pull the plug.

"We've planned to get out of the King County Fair business for a long period of time," Sims said. "People are not attracted to it. We don't get a lot of people coming to the fair. I think we've tried everything — entertainment, we've staffed up, staffed down. ... We're saying it's time to throw in the towel on the King County Fair."

The County Council will vote on the budget, including Sims' proposal to end the fair, next month.

From the days when the fair drew 100,000 paying customers and exhibitors, it dwindled to 16,387 this year during its truncated three-day run — even though the county offered free admission.

Compared with the larger Evergreen State Fair in Monroe and the Puyallup Fair (with attendance of 1 million), it has become a tiny also-ran. Originally located in Georgetown, the King County Fair moved to Renton in 1900 and to Enumclaw after World War II.

"It's quite shocking. We didn't know anything about it," Enumclaw Mayor John Wise said Wednesday. He called the potential closure "very disturbing," and said he hopes Sims and the County Council will agree to keep it open in some way — particularly for members of 4-H and Future Farmers of America who are learning to be farmers and ranchers.

The county gave the fairgrounds to Enumclaw last year along with $2 million to help it promote other year-round uses and plan development of a regional equestrian center.

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"It's been part of this community for so long that there's going to be a void felt if it's not held here," said Joan Lewis, manager of the Enumclaw Expo Center, as the fairgrounds are now known.

Many fair supporters have been upset by the steady erosion of the event as it has moved away from paid entertainment, greasy food, and amusement-park rides and back to its agricultural roots. This year's more down-home event was renamed the King County 4-H Agricultural Fair.

County Councilmembers Reagan Dunn, whose district includes Enumclaw, and Pete von Reichbauer, whose district is nearby, have scheduled a town-hall meeting Wednesday in Enumclaw to talk to locals.

"We're going to sit down and work and listen next week to people about how we can take this unique setting, which we've turned over to the city of Enumclaw, and see how we can develop a partnership to get more people out there," von Reichbauer said.

Among those who will be watching events is Vashon Island resident Char Phillips, who has taken 4-H members to the fair for years to display their crafts, horses and, in recent years, guide dogs they are training as companions to people with disabilities.

"The fair is the highlight of the whole 4-H year," Phillips said. Members exhibit there and, if they place highly, qualify to go on to the state-level fair in Puyallup.

"It's huge, it's the steppingstone to go to state. State is like — wow, I made it to state."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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