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Hernando County Fair Association already guilty of running fair into the ground

The Wave Swinger spins fairgoers nearly 30 feet in the air at the 2013 Hernando County Fair. The Sheriff’s Office has launched an investigation into a financial statement.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

The Wave Swinger spins fairgoers nearly 30 feet in the air at the 2013 Hernando County Fair. The Sheriff’s Office has launched an investigation into a financial statement.

You can see why the Hernando County Fair Association doesn't want the world — or even several of its own board members — to see how it handles money.

A bag stuffed with cash left untended in a closet; a stinky deal that pays the husband of the association's treasurer $65,000 a year to maintain the buildings and grounds; record keeping so sloppy that former association president Sandra Nicholson says she still doesn't know whether last year's fair turned a profit.

Sunday's story by Times staffers Logan Neill and Barbara Behrendt uncovered this mess. The Sheriff's Office has launched an investigation to determine whether it's more than that, whether it's a criminal mess.

Good thing, too, because that money is our money. We entrusted it with the association, or at least with the handful of folks who have been running it the last few years.

We also trusted them with something else, an institution. And we don't need detectives to tell us that in this regard they've already committed a serious offense.

They ran it into the ground.

It's easy to forget because recent editions have been so dreary, but in the middle of the last decade the fair was one of the best things this county had going.

Kids loved it. For adults, it was like a good cocktail party in that you stopped every few feet to chat with somebody you knew.

There were musical acts people had actually heard of. The displays of arts, crafts, canning and baking buzzed with participants and viewers.

The fair organizers staged events based on then-trendy television shows, such as Fear Factor and American Idol. They reintroduced old standards, such as pie-eating contests and a demolition derby. A professional rodeo helped push attendance of the weeklong fair to well over 30,000.

Nicholson has made a lot of strangely unbelievable statements in her new role as fair spokeswoman, so it's no surprise that she says things really haven't changed.

And, true enough, the livestock show is still going strong, and the demolition derby has remained a staple.

She also said that old, fun events have been replaced by equally fun ones, such as a Mutton Bustin' Contest, a sheep rodeo for children. And attendance has not gone down dramatically, she said, holding steady in recent years at between 20,000 and 25,000.

But even if those numbers are accurate — a legitimate question, given that the association seems allergic to precise record keeping — it misses the point.

Besides the livestock show and the midway, there isn't a whole lot to do. You don't seem to see as many people you know. Nicholson herself has complained of a chronic shortage of volunteers.

Maybe because not enough of them have been asked.

Remember the celebrity cow-milking contest that used to kick off the fair, organized with the help of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce? It quit happening mostly because the association quit calling, said chamber president Pat Crowley.

"That relationship just sort of went away," she said.

Rick Ahrens, a veteran agricultural science teacher and the adviser of the Brooksville chapter of FFA, said livestock folks have felt shut out of the fair's operation. So did former board members such as Joe Bernardini and Jan Knowles, both of whom who have enough connections to bring in dozens of volunteers.

This is understandable in a way. If I were handling things the way the fair association has, I wouldn't want people watching either.

But secrecy has a price. In trying to protect themselves, those few core members of the association have shut out the community.

They have circled the wagons against the thing that made the fair worthwhile.

Hernando County Fair Association already guilty of running fair into the ground 02/11/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 7:22pm]

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