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Hailey Holtti of New York Mills holds up for family and friends the blue ribbon she won showing her 9-month-old dairy steer named Henry during the East Otter Tail County Fair on Friday.

Free admission boosts 2009 EOT fair success

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It was a "free-for-all" at the East Otter Tail County Fair July 23-26, and based on preliminary numbers - it was a success.

This is the first year the fair board opened the gates for free admission. With no gate charge, it is difficult to arrive at attendance numbers, but according to fair board president Pete Zavodil, attendance for the 2009 fair was estimated at 7,000. This compares to about 5,000 last year, when there was an admission charge at the gate.

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"Based on the comments we've received, people really appreciated the free gate," said Zavodil. "Families were able to bring their kids more often, and they enjoyed the fair more because they were able to come and go as they pleased."

The carnival company, which was new to Perham this year, was pleased with the crowds, noted fair board member Rick Breitenfeldt. Carnival operators are dependent on traffic on the midway in order to generate revenue--and the free gate admission accomplished that, said Breitenfeldt.

"Some people commented that the fair seemed more personal, more friends and family oriented this year," said Zavodil, noting that the carnival company was especially family oriented. "The carnival company went out of their way to make people feel welcome."

It's too early to determine how the expenses and revenues stacked up.

"Until all the bills come in, we won't know all the facts," said Breitenfeldt. "We were trying the free gate for the first year, and it always takes time to figure out when you do something new for the first time."

With the free gate, the fair board surrendered sales. But ticket prices for the grandstand events, including the demolition derbies and the tractor pull, were $10 for adults--which offset the loss in gate receipts, noted Breitenfeldt. Attendance at those grandstand events was on par with last year, said Zavodil, but the Sunday demo derby was down somewhat.

The fair also made up for the lost gate revenue by charging for parking.

The free gate also made the fair more attractive to vendors, said Zavodil--which meant more money in exhibit and booth rentals.

The booth space in the exhibit hall was virtually sold out, said Breitenfeldt. Several more exhibitors were located on the outdoor grounds, when the indoor space was all booked up.

The free gate also resulted in more sales at the beverage and beer garden, noted Zavodil.

Decent crowds were on hand for the Wylde Knights DJ on Friday and Saturday nights, noted Zavodil.

The livestock barns were also reportedly nearly full.

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