Joe Bolchoz from Coastal Carolina Fair, Kelly Larson of Alaska State Fair and Jerry Pitts of Coastal Carolina Fair, pose with moderator Terri Reynolds of Hendricks County 4-H Fairgrounds & Conference Complex in Danville, Ind., and Richard Mock from Coastal Carolina Fair. (VT Photo)

REPORTING FROM LAS VEGAS — Panelists addressed fairgrounds beautification and landscaping during the Dec. 8-12 International Association of Fairs & Expositions conference in Las Vegas. Whether with plants or structures, fair managers agreed that the aesthetics are an important part of the fair.

“We hate to admit it, but the fact of the matter is that we’re judged first by appearance — be it as an individual, or your lot,” said Joe Bolchoz of Coastal Carolina Fair in Ladson, S.C. “It’s important that we put a good foot forward when we start to look at this thing.”

The Coastal Carolina Fair begins on the last Thursday in October, leading to challenges with weather and frost. There is an overall budget for landscaping and groundskeeping of $50,000.

It helps to look within the community to find resources for fairgrounds beautification. Coastal Carolina Fair partners with the Charleston County Disabilities Board for landscaping labor. By working with the board, landscaping costs to cut grass were reduced by 80 percent.

“The disability group uses our grounds as a training area to teach the disabled how to use the equipment,” said Coastal Carolina Fair’s Jerry Pitts. “They do the edging of the asphalt all around the midway and cut the grass, and they end up being employed by other landscapers.”

“The goal is to prove that these people are trainable, and they do an excellent job for us,” he added.

Coastal Carolina Fair also has a relationship with Clemson University, partnering with the school’s ‘Master Gardener’ program. The master gardeners take a year-long course and then show off their skills on a plot of land at the fair. During the fair, there is an area where customers can walk in and talk to the master gardeners, as well as signage explaining the plants.

“Reach out to your community and local talent — a few tickets or whatever you can do for them will go a long way,” said Bolchoz.

Alaska State Fair in Palmer also works with a $50,000 budget for landscaping its 300-acre property. The fair’s Kelly Larson said the beautification program serves a multitude of purposes, including providing a calm space to reduce stress, drawing the patron's eye toward exhibits or away from unsightly areas, and educating the public.

“Photos from the gardens go out our gates and through our social media feeds daily,” said Larson, who added that flowerbeds are used to soften the appearance of harsh steel structures. 

She also recommends seeking out partnerships with local colleges, but to find paid help.

“Trying to schedule and oversee volunteers proved more costly than paid labor,” said Larson. “By providing 10 positions at intern wages, we attract many college students. It’s great experience for them — especially those studying the sciences, horticulture and biology.”

The fair uses plants and flowers from its own gardens for special events and celebrations, and even to make parade floats that promote the late-August fair.

Next year Alaska State Fair plans to further its education efforts with landscaping by adding QR codes near some of the plants. The fair showcases vegetables and herbs that can be readily grown in Alaska.

“The QR codes don’t cost anything because we have our own printing machine, so we print on weatherproof material and then can stake them into the soil,” said Larson. “That way, if people can’t make a guided tour, they can get more information and read about the plants at home.”

Jeanne Keaton from St. Lucie County Fair in Fort Pierce, Fla., said that the majority of the beautification projects on the 250-acre site are physical structures instead of plants, since even native plants have trouble growing in the cold and windy conditions.

“The majority of our beautification can be dually used for signage and some beautification purposes,” said Keaton. She said that flower boxes are a good option because they’re cheap to build and can be protected during a freeze — although it’s important to remember that containers will freeze more quickly than plants in the ground.

She said that fair managers shouldn’t be afraid to set quality standards for vendors stating right in the contract that booths have to be clean and signage must be printed.

Keaton said that the most popular part of her beautification strategy is benches with small attached flower boxes that provide space for signage or sponsorship.

“They serve as areas where people can sit down and put their cup or plate, and sponsors scream for these,” said Keaton. “I’ve built probably 30 of these for the fairgrounds and use them for smaller sponsors that can’t afford our bigger packages.”

Interviewed for this story: Joe Bolchoz and Jerry Pitts, (843) 572-3161; Jeanne Keaton, (772) 464-2910; Kelly Larson, (907) 745-4827