The Autumnal Equinox is this Sunday, which means it's time for the North Country Fair, an annual gathering on the Arcata Plaza with a history stretching back 34 years. Streets around the town square will be closed to traffic Saturday and Sunday to make way for musicians and dancers, booths manned by artisans selling their wares, service organizations and offering food and drink, politicos manning information tables, tourists and locals shopping or merely mingling, everyone enjoying the last gasp of summer's glory. There's a slight chance of rain, but otherwise the fair should be same as it ever was, as glorious as every year. With the glaring exception of last year.
You might recall that there were some problems with the 2006 fair. (See Journal cover story, "Unfair! Not the Same Old North Country Fair" Sept. 28, 2006.) Local music promoter Washington Vera had gained control of the event, taking over from Matthew Cook, who'd served as fair director for 10 years and was ready to retire. While Cook had always run the fair on a break-even basis, drawing a modest stipend for his work, Vera saw the opportunity to run things more "like a business" as he put it, and make a profit if possible.
It came as a surprise to many that the fair was not run by a nonprofit organization. Historically, an informal group known as the Same Old People worked together to take care of advance planning, but they had never bothered to incorporate as an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Over the years interest in the group waned and the event basically shifted to autopilot, with responsibility falling solely on the fair director with negligible oversight.
Left to his own devices, Vera implemented changes aimed at turning a profit. He did away with a rule insisting on craftsmen selling only their own wares and brought in booths selling imports from China and elsewhere. By all accounts (aside from his own) he cut corners to try to save money. Vendors complained of lax security and Porta-Potties awash with filth. Arcata Main Street, who had taken over the beer concession, were outraged when they learned that extra fees they'd paid for security had basically been pocketed. (Vera later returned a portion of the fee.)
In the months that followed last year's fair, community members concerned with the future of the event vowed to wrestle control away from Vera. Michael Welch of Redwood Alliance (who had previously run the beer concession) filed an application with the city of Arcata for use of the Arcata Plaza for the North Country Fair on behalf of the moribund Same Old People. Vera filed his own application. Meanwhile, word went out to former Same Old People and the group was reborn. Volunteers formed a SOP board of directors and set plans in motion to become an official nonprofit.
The decision about which fair application to accept was left to the city's Parks and Recreation Deptartment staff. Rec staff ultimately rejected Vera's request, and he stepped aside.
At the request of the Same Old People, former fair director Matthew Cook returned to his position on a short-term basis. Following a search for candidates, an Arcata couple, John and Tamara Hubbard, were hired as assistant fair directors. They will train with Cook this year and next, then take over as directors allowing Cook to retire once again.
A side result of the controversy was increased attention to the rules on the use of Arcata's public facilities. Led by city manager Michael Hackett, the city instituted a new policy in February regarding use of the Plaza and city parks. For now on, organizations holding large-scale special events using the Arcata Plaza or park facilities will have to be nonprofits. Fortunately, this has allowed for a little bit of slack: An exemption was made for this year's North Country Fair, as the Same Old People are still in the process of filing papers.