By Ron VandenBoom
Mike Spencer, manager of the Great Northern Fair, equates the process of getting ready for opening day to that of a basketball team trying to qualify and play in a state tournament.
"You work all year to qualify for the tournament," he said. "Then once there you go all out to do the best you can. Once the tournament is over, you take a deep breath and start all over again."
Spencer, who is managing his seventh fair, said work on the fair is much the same. Acts for the night show and other entertainment are lined up in November. Stock contractors, petting zoo contracts and even the fair theme contest are organized months in advance.
By the time July rolls around, everything is pretty much organized, he said. Then the waiting begins.
Spencer's attention is directed toward dealing with the myriad of smaller problems that need immediate attention, like replacing a burned-out light bulb or a sign that still needs to be hung.
Once the fair begins, his focus will again change as dealing with vendors that need extra space, supervising the grounds crew and even seeing to it the restrooms are presentable occupies his time. Spencer's days begin about 6 a.m. and sometimes don't end until after midnight.
Anyone who has a problem or needs help comes to Spencer.
But while Spencer might seem to be a one-man show, he's quick to point out that he does not do it alone. He depends heavily on the Hill County commissioners, the Great Northern Fair Board and other people like the grounds crew to keep things on track.
Spencer said the Fair Board is very good at listening to others and adapting some of their ideas to improve fair programs.
Each year changes are made that do not alter the overall program but enhance the way fair programs work, Spencer said. Many of the changes will go unnoticed by the public, but make a visit to the fair more enjoyable.
Spencer mentioned a courtesy tent at the PRCA Rodeo as an example of an idea taken from another fair. The tent gives athletes someplace to rest between rides where they can get out of the sun. A local business set up a taco cart in the tent and another donated a cell phone the riders can use.
"I would like to get Havre to be one of the top three rodeos in the state," Spencer said. "We raised the purse this year ... and I would like to see it going even higher."
Spencer said he sees the tent and other improvements to the rodeo as part of what it takes to attract some of the big names in rodeo to Havre.
Spencer also would like to see the prize money increase for the Friday Demo Derby. The purse, already one of the largest in the state, offers a top prize of $2,500.
This year the Fair Board responded to complaints about a lack of parking on the fairgrounds by opening an area southeast of the grandstand to public parking. The space, unuseable for years because of a saline seep problem, is now solid enough to support vehicles, Spencer said. Fixing the problem has also reduced the number of mosquitoes.
Another change the Fair Board decided to try this year is a free Wednesday night show.
Spencer said advance tickets for the show, which features Michael Mezmer and Wylie and the Wild West, are available at any of the fair's 92 sponsors and will be available the night of the show at the food booths on the fairgrounds.
Spencer said the board is trying the free night show idea hoping it will attract a larger audience.
Last year work was done to improve the beer garden at the fair by adding several new concrete picnic tables and six new trees. A canopy over the bar was also added. None of the money for this upgrade was provided by the county, but was instead paid for by sponsors.
Recruiting sponsors for the fair is an important and challenging task for Spencer. When he first started, he said, he hated having to ask sponsors for money, but this year 92 different events or projects will have sponsors thanks to his efforts.
The benefit to Hill County taxpayers is substantial. For every $22,000 the board spends on events like the petting zoo, rodeo and other attractions, $19,000 comes from sponsors, Spencer said.
Managing the fair has become a labor of love to Spencer. As opening day draws closer and the minor challenges are conquered, only the weather can stand between Spencer and that accomplishment of 12 months of hard work.
Like Spencer's other job, teaching elementary students, managing the fair has become dear to his heart.
"I take ownership in a lot of stuff," he said. "So I take it personally."