The Columbia County Fair brings fair-goers 10 days of family thrills and entertainment each fall.
But for the Merchants Association of Columbia County members involved in organizing it, the fair is a year-around event.
“It does take a good bit of time and a lot of preparation,” Merchants lifetime director and fair chairman Mike Zapata said. “It’s a lot to put in it. There’s not that many people that want to put the commitment and everything to it that it takes. It does take a good bit of time and it does take a lot of preparation.”
This year’s fair, the 48th annual, opens on Halloween Thursday and runs through Nov. 9 at the Columbia County Fairgrounds on Columbia Road across from Patriots Park.
As in year’s past, Zapata expects 60-65 Merchants members and their spouses to volunteer at each day of the fair doing a variety of tasks, including giving patrons golf car rides to and from their vehicles, operating concessions and ticket booths, and anything else that needs to be done.
Zapata, who has been involved in organizing the fair for about 15 years and served as fair chairman for several years, said he and other fair organizers usually meet right after the fair to discuss how it went. And a few weeks after the fair, Zapata said he heads to Las Vegas in December for a nationwide fair convention. There, he begins looking for new shows, food vendors and other fair amenities.
“They have a little bit of everything there,” Zapata said.
Nightly shows include the Sea Lion Splash, Vortex of DOOM, Motorcycle Globe and Tower of Chairs and master chainsaw carver Brian Ruth, in addition to Oscar the Robot and a petting zoo. All shows are free with admission.
A demolition derby will be held at 7:30 p.m. Monday and Friday.
“It was such a success that we decided to do it twice this year,” Merchants President Richard Felder said, adding the derby was held only one night last year. “It was very, very popular so we brought it back for two nights this year. We’re very excited about that.”
After fair organizers visit another fair convention in Atlanta in January, planning begins again.
“After that, we come back and start making changes,” Felder said. “It’s amazing how much work it takes.”
One thing fair organizers don’t have to worry about is the midway. Jim Drew, owner of Drew Expositions has taken care of that for a decade.
“We have a good fair going on out there,” said Drew. “It’s a good place for families. ... It’s just a good clean place.”
The midway includes popular favorites such as the Seattle Wheel, Himalaya, Cyclops, Sizzler and Tornado, and also includes lots of rides for children.
A new roller coaster, the Yippo, will allow families of adults and children to ride together.
“Everybody can ride,” Drew said. “It’s a good little coaster.”
All year, the Merchants work to make sure the fairgrounds is ready for the midway. They maintain the property by cleaning, painting, spraying weeds and keeping the property. Before the fair last year, the merchants debuted a new restroom facility and had recently paved the midway. Felder said he spends weekends picking up rocks out of a recently cleared area of parking.
“It’s a lot of people that really want to give back to Columbia County,” Felder said of the Merchants.
Zapata said he starts in January obtaining state permits and was confirming the delivery of bleachers in April for the demolition derby. By July, he was trying to confirm the shows and concession vendors.
But he’s definitely not alone in his efforts to get the fair pulled together each year. Zapata said it takes a team of dedicated merchants to get it done.
“We’ve got a real good core group of folks, family-oriented in our group that enjoy seeing the families come there and enjoy seeing the families having a good time and also getting a value for their money,” Zapata said.
The fair is the Merchants’ biggest annual fundraiser. Zapata said about 60,000 people visited the fair last year. Proceeds go toward several charities, which the Merchants donate thousands of dollars to each year.
Zapata said putting the fair together is a lot of work, but well worth it.
“I enjoy seeing people come out here,” Zapata said. “I like the end product. “We’ve got great people doing a lot of work down here. My people are the ones that put this thing together. Without them, this thing would never come on.”
And the group is already planning for next year, and the fair’s golden anniversary in 2015.
“We’re already kind of looking to the year after next,” he said.