MOUNT VERNON – Though much public speculation surrounded the Knox County Fair Board’s decision to introduce a beer garden to this year’s fair, little evidence suggests the idea was anything but a success.
The beer garden netted approximately $4,800 in profits for the fair in five days of use, the fair board reported at its August 7 meeting. According to records released by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, there were only three “alcohol-related disturbances” on the fairgrounds that week.
One involved a person who carried an open container into the race horse barn; another involved a person who refused to show their ID at the beer garden gate, and was therefore ejected from the garden; and another involved “an intoxicated male stumbling near the grandstands,” observed with his family.
Overall, the number of arrests, accidents, people ejected from the fair, fight/assault calls and miscellaneous complaints stayed consistent with those in years past, KCSO records show.
The garden appeared to be full, or close to it, most nights. Patrons enjoyed a selection of Anheuser-Busch products, such as Bud Light, Busch Light and Budweiser, served in aluminum bottles. Original craft beers from Stein Brewing Company were served on tap.
“I think it went fantastic,” said fair board member Matt Jones, who ran the beer garden alongside fellow board member Ben Rieman. “I think it was accepted very well, no opposition. It was smooth. I think we’ll do it again.”
The fair board seemed pleased with the beer garden’s profit totals; for context, the fair makes around $4,000 on two nights of harness racing.
“Not bad for our first year,” fair board president Dustin Beheler said.
The fair board acquired a five-day liquor permit for the garden this spring, making it accessible to fairgoers from Tuesday-Saturday. The garden moved around based on the night; it sat near the horse pulling track on the hill, near the grandstand entrance and in the infield at certain points during fair week.
The garden contained a tented area, where the beer was served, as well as bleacher seating. The garden was fenced off, and it typically sat in a prime viewing location (at the start line for dirt drag racing, near the grandstand entrance for the Friday night rodeo, etc.). Anheuser-Busch products cost $4 per bottle, while Stein Brewing Company drafts cost $6 per pour.
Customers were ID’d at the gate by Jones and Rieman, and sheriff’s deputies were stationed nearby for security purposes. Customers received a wristband upon entering the beer garden, and they were limited to 10 drink tickets per night. They were not allowed to take drinks out of the garden, as the fair board required any cups (even those potentially containing non-alcoholic beverages) to be emptied at the gate.
Those who populated the garden seemed to appreciate the idea. Ryan Palmer, a Centerburg native who’s gone to the fair his whole life, said the concept was “definitely positive.”
“They had a good setup here, they had it fenced off where only 21-and-up are allowed in here. It’s right on the track so you’re able to see everything,” said Palmer, 23, who sipped from his second Bud Light as he watched dirt drag racing on Tuesday night.
“It’s definitely positive. Since they cut out the major event, the concert, the beer garden allows them to make up for the profit that they [had]. So this is a good idea; there’s plenty of older people here that’ll pay for a beer and be able to watch a couple of events. I think it’s a great idea.”
Scott and Stacy Futo, of Gambier, said they’d never tried Stein Brewing Company beer before attending the Friday night rodeo. They enjoyed shandy drafts while sitting on the beer garden bleachers.
“We thought it was a good idea,” Scott said of the beer garden concept. “I mean, it’s just like any other fair you go to. Why not have it here, too?”
This same question was raised by Kevin Harroff, 29, who is not originally from Knox County. He grew up going to the Lorain County Fair, where beer is served publicly throughout the fairgrounds. Those who are ID’d receive wristbands, he said, allowing them to be served at different stands.
“I think it should be available throughout the entire fair. I’m from Amherst and at the Lorain County Fair, you can drink anywhere,” said Harroff, who drank a SBC Blood Orange IPA during Friday night’s rodeo.
Harroff added that it never seemed to be a security issue in Lorain County. The Lorain County Fair is bigger than Knox County’s, however, and Harroff said an open-serve policy would probably require more policing.
One patron, who requested anonymity for fear he might lose his job, seemed on-the-fence about the beer garden concept.
“It’s convenient, but I could deal without it,” he said, drinking a Bud Light as he watched dirt drag racing. The customer seemed skeptical about the fair board’s previous claims that a beer garden could make upwards of $30,000 to $40,000; Jones later confirmed that those numbers were reported at other county fairs during concerts, which often bring in massive attendance totals.
Another patron seemed to think the 10-beer cut-off might have been too high. Eric Truedell, a carpenter from Fredericktown, suggested six beers might be more appropriate.
“You get a bunch of people drinking 10 beers at once – who’s to say two guys won’t buy 10 [beers], and then he drinks four and gives the others to that guy?” posed Truedell, drinking a Budweiser with his friends. “That wouldn’t be good, I don’t think.”
Overall, however, Truedell supported the beer garden idea and said he was excited to try it this summer. With many families attending the fair, Truedell said he was pleased that the garden seemed well-managed and civil. Like most customers interviewed in the beer garden that week, Truedell said the prices seemed reasonable.
The fair board noted that the beer garden appeared clean, as very little trash was found the next day. Jones said patrons were careful about throwing away their bottles and cups before exiting.
“I just think people have a bad perception of people that drink beer or alcohol. No, they’re as respectful as anyone else,” he said. “We had recycling stations out, they put their stuff in the recycling stations and threw their trash in the trash. They policed their own area.”
Jones said he received mostly positive feedback from customers during fair week. Many confirmed what he and Rieman thought when they came up with the idea – that people would like a place to drink legally on the fairgrounds.
“The people in there were just appreciative. I don’t know how many times they’d say, ‘Thank you for giving me a place to drink beer at the fair without having to sneak it,’” Jones said. “This is a 40-year-old guy out here saying, ‘Thank you for letting me come to the fair and have a beer and not feel guilty.’”
Jones said the board is looking into getting more seating for next year, and it might also move the beer garden down to the other side of the midway to increase attendance.
Fairgoers told board members that making the beer garden available during harness races could increase betting and beer sales. Jones said the board would simply need to apply for two permits next year, in order to serve beer more than five nights. He anticipated it might be sold Monday, but not Sunday.
While Jones said the beer garden idea received criticism earlier this summer, he believes the concept has a bright future at the fair.
“There’s no reason not to do it again next year. It was accepted all the way across the board. Down on the midway, up on the hill… and even inside, we thought they were pretty respectful. No one was out of hand,” he said.
“It’s just, it’s something new and it’s a change. And no one likes a whole lot of change when you’re in an old town. And unfortunately, this is the day and age that we’re in, and we’re moving forward and staying up with everybody else.”