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Contentious discussion gives ideas on fair food

After a 45-minute, often contentious, discussion, the manager of the Great Northern Fairgrounds thanked people who made comments during a Hill County fair board meeting about how to handle food concessions outside of the annual fair.

Fairgrounds manager Tim Solomon said he wants the board at its August meeting to discuss ideas people raised about how to handle those concessions.

"And I think you have come up with some great solutions, " he added.

Close to 30 people attended the board meeting, including representatives of Hill County 4-H, the Hi-Line Cruz'n Association and the local antique association. Many spoke out on the issue of what policies should be in place for food sales at events held at the fairgrounds.

Solomon raised the issue at the fair board's June meeting, saying he was approached by a local food vendor who said he had been told he could not sell hot dogs at the Rod Run. He was told only the 4-H could sell food at the event, Solomon said.

Solomon told the board in June he wanted the board to establish a policy about whether organizations could have exclusive access to sell food at events outside of the fair, and whether or not the commission on gross sales of food normally charged by the fair board should be charged at those events.

4-H is exempt from the percentage charged during the fair, in recognition of its members' work to maintain its facility, the chuckwagon building on the fairground, for paying its own electrical bill at the building, for work it does to repair and maintain facilities it uses, and for its work in operating and cleaning up after its activities and competitions at the fair.

The suggestions made Tuesday included:

  • Charging an extra rental fee, perhaps $25, to allow the organizations renting the facilities the ability to choose their vendors;
  • Opening the events to all vendors interested but continuing to exempt 4-H from the percentage charged;
  • Creating a list from which event sponsors can contact possible vendors;
  • Creating a list of events to be held over the summer for vendors to use to contact event organizers;
  • Charging different percents to for-profit businesses and nonprofit groups.

At the start of the discussion Tuesday, Solomon said he thinks people have misunderstood what the discussion was in June.

Solomon said he is not looking to go back and charge people for past concessions, but he wants to know what policy he should follow.

"I was asking the board for direction for policy for the future …, " he said. "I think we need to come up with a system that's fair for everyone. "

Lon Waid, chair of the Hill County 4-H Livestock Committee, said that wasn't the impression he got from the June article in the Havre Daily News about the board's discussion. People have come to 4-H members upset about the issue, he said.

"We do not like negative publicity, " Waid said.

People also said they believed the Cruz'n Association and the North Central Montana Antique Enthusiasts were singled out.

Solomon said the Rod Run and the Everything Antique Show were what brought about the discussion.

"The whole issue came up because people asked to do it and were told no, " he said. "That's where the policy needs to be set. "

Several people said 4-H is willing to do the food sales at events even though it is not a money-maker for the clubs.

"We're looking at it basically as a community service, and we were invited to do it … we're not doing it to make money, " said Michelle Ghorecki, organizational leader of the Bear Paw Beavers 4-H Club.

She said the club made $167 working three days.

Several people commented that, with such small amounts made at nonfair events, having more than one vendor would not make it worthwhile.

Wally Duchsner of the Antique Enthusiasts said that for most of the run of the Everything Antique show, the 4-H has been the only group willing to sell food, and they do a good job. He added that he believes the groups renting the fairgrounds should be able to pick their vendors.

Duchsner also said that, with small sales at many events, if the fair board charged a percentage groups may not be able to find anyone who would offer concessions.

Solomon said that, at some events outside of the fair, groups that pay a percent do work concessions. That has provided $500 to $600 to the fair board at times, he said.

Several people said that the 4-H clubs should be allowed to sell food at events without paying the normal commission, due to the benefits to the children participating and the returns they give to the community, as well as the work they do on the fairgrounds.

Solomon said that is true of several organizations, such as the Boy Scouts and the Boys & Girls Club of the Hi-Line. Nonprofit groups have made major improvements to the fairgrounds in the past while continuing to pay their percentage during the fair and at other events, he added.

He said he wants the board to consider the ideas raised and to discuss them at the next meeting. In response to comments and questions, he said any discussion of the issue would be listed in the board agenda, and the discussions would be open to the public.

Under Montana law, public boards cannot close policy discussions to the public unless they can show that an individual right to privacy outweighs the public's right to know.

Board Chair Bert Corcoran also said, in response to a question, that all of the ideas raised would be discussed.

"As far as I'm concerned, yes, we're willing to discuss all the options, " he said, adding that that discussion will help set a policy for Solomon to follow as fairgrounds manager.

"That's what he's looking for, " Corcoran said.


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