PEORIA — Erica Abenroth, the new board president at Expo Gardens, continues a family tradition at the organization best known for putting on the Heart of Illinois Fair.
Eileen Frye, Abenroth's grandmother, was known as the driving force behind the fair for 40 years, 30 of which she served as general manager. Frye died at the age of 86 in 2009.
Abenroth, an Expo board member since 2008, just started a three-year term as fair board president, undertaking the difficult task of keeping the fair viable at a time when the popularity of county fairs is on the wane.
"She's got a challenge on her hands, but she's got the full support of the board," said Phil Salzer, a Peoria County Board member who's been on the fair board since 1979.
"I've seen the fair at its best and at its worst," he said. Salzer characterized the decline in attendance at the fair as "a result of the change in the culture of our society."
The HOI Fair has struggled in recent years, drawing only about 40,000 people in 2016, the last year in which the fair ran for nine days. That compares to the 245,000 who attended in 1997 when Frye was manager.
In 2017, the run of the HOI fair was shortened to five days, just one of a number of cost-cutting moves taken by the fair board, said Abenroth.
"We're celebrating our 70th year this summer (July 16-21). We're actually adding a day this year. We're going back to our roots. When the fair opened in 1950, it was heavily agricultural. It was a place to come for horse shows and cattle shows," she said.
"We also reached out to nine counties in those days. Now some of those counties have their own fair and the farming community has shrunk," said Abenroth.
"This year we want to provide an ag perspective for those that don't see farm animals on a regular basis," she said.
Another big factor in the box office decline at the HOI fair involves entertainment, said Abenroth. "In its heyday, the fair was the place to go for shows," she said, pointing to a wall in a small Expo Gardens office where one of the walls is plastered with the publicity photographers of performers who played the fair.
The smiling visage of entertainers like Bob Hope, Kenny Rogers, Waylon Jennings and Chubby Checker are just part of the outer layer of posted photographs, said Abenroth. "The pictures probably go two or three deep," she said.
But those pictures are starting to look a little faded. "Costs have risen over the years. An act that once cost $10,000 costs $100,000 today," said Abenroth, adding the fair has moved more recently to showcasing local talent.
The fair is always looking for special attractions, she said. "Last year we had Galaxy Girl on a motorcycle 90 feet in the air and a nine-foot robot that talked to the kids," said Abenroth.
Despite the decline at the box office, the fair still generates more than half of the income at Expo Gardens, she said. Events are held year round at the site, said Abenroth, pointing to the Farmers Share of the Food Dollar Breakfast event held in March and dog shows and flea markets held throughout the year.
"We couldn't run this place without Joanne Jackson and Tim Tucker," she said, referring to Expo's full-time staff. "There are also part-timers and countless volunteers that we depend on," said Abenroth.
Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource.