Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Ruth: End student fair day and let families gorge, gawk in peace

Reader alert. This column is about to take issue with one of Hillsborough County's most literal sacred cows.

A simple question. Now that it is, thankfully, over, do we really need the annual tribute to a heart attack on a stick, otherwise known as the Florida State Fair?

This year's fair ended with about 40,000 fewer people attending the event. It ended with the death of a 14-year-old boy. It ended with a night in which some 200 youths disrupted the fair running through the midway fighting, stealing food and otherwise acting like complete dopes as law enforcement seemed incapable of maintaining security. Best of all, it ended.

To be sure, the Florida State Fair will return again next year. Despite its many shortcomings, it remains a big deal.

But as the fair authority ponders the 2015 effort, perhaps it is time for the powers-that-be to come to a Paul Bunyan moment to decide just what it is exactly they want the annual tribute to deep-fried lard on a stick to be.

The fair has been around for 110 years. It began as a yearly celebration of Florida's agriculture industry. And for decades the fair had a sort of kitchy, harmless, big fat goopy slice of Americana about it.

City folks could see a real cow, or pig, up close and personal. And those fresh-scrubbed kids who belong to the 4-H club could show off their prized steer or hog before the transition to New York strip or slab of bacon.

And of course there were the chintzy arcade games and rides operated by carnies, for whom a dental plan was obviously not included in their employment benefits.

It was all oh so very Mayberry — triple-bypass-on-a-stick optional.

There is a fine line between cheesy and smarmy. And in recent years, the fair has tipped over that line into what might be perceived as 11 days of mayhem.

One could argue that the decline in fair attendance could be partly attributable to this notion: What family wants to subject children to the possibility they might find themselves in the middle of a flash mob of morons using candy apples as hand grenades?

Clearly the fair needs to restore its family-friendly image. It needs to find a way to provide security that doesn't turn the fair into an oppressive armed camp so that patrons can while away the time as they savor their stroke on a stick.

A good place to start might be eliminating the annual and anachronistic free school day, when Hillsborough County public school students are given the day off from classes to attend the fair if they want to.

This stupid idea dates back to an era when it was expected that students would attend the fair as a learning experience. It also was a time when at least one parent could be expected to accompany her or his little darling for some bonding time while admiring Bessie the cow. How quaint.

That was then. And as the 99 ejections and 12 arrests in 2014 attest, this is now.

It is highly doubtful that a vast majority of students getting the day off from school A) even bother to attend the fair and/or B) give a rat's patootie about the dangers of citrus greening or learning more about dairy goats.

The fair needs to reclaim its image as an ambassador for the state's agribusiness as well as a safe and entertaining experience for families who merely want to enjoy their diabetic coma on a stick in peace without fear of having to take an ambulance thrill ride to the emergency room.


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