Chris McGuigan missed a Sanders County Fair once. He was away to college in Wyoming. All 52 others in his life, he attended.
With a lifetime of fair experience as participant and many hundreds of hours on the all-volunteer board, he stepped up to serve as fair manager in 2017, a position which he resigned at the February board meeting.
McGuigan cites multiple accomplishments he has seen both in his time on the board under manager Mike Hashisaki, and in his two years as manager. Included were upgrades to all the livestock and rodeo equipment, making the arena ADA accessible, building the 4-H horse arena, and building a crow’s nest for the arena. One asset he brought to the effort was his ability to fix buildings, pipes, lawns, or attend other such needs. This skill set came in handy on the Thursday night of the 2018 fair when a water main broke. McGuigan brought in his own equipment, and he and his “water man” stayed up all night, fixing the pipe. “No one really knew we had a chance of being out of water for the whole fair,” he said.
HIS WORK on the rodeo arena surface earned several coveted “Best Footing,” awards from the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA).
“For the barrel racers, it’s top-notch ground to race in. They feel safe, get good times, and it’s easy on their horses.”
The fair won this six or seven times and has been runner-up as many or more, he says, due to attention to good ground, the right water content, and being tilled and packed correctly.
McGuigan’s experience may be hard to replace. “It’s an art. I spent the majority of my work on the board doing the rodeo production, making sure the grounds were ready for the cowboys, cowgirls and the rodeo company, making them comfortable and building relationships,” he said. “In the last years we’ve been averaging about 15 of the top 20 cowboys in the nation going through our rodeo grounds in four days. It’s because of the quality of the facilities.” No one else has expressed interest in training for this work.
ONE OF McGuigan’s proudest accomplishments is that in the two years he served as manager, the fair budget went from bringing in about $50,000 below operating expenses to over $128,000 over expenses. This opened up opportunities for investing in improvements, such as a new tractor they had been needing for working the arena surface.
“I kept track of every penny the fair spent, and showed the county that this was possible,” says McGuigan.
He also donated his own equipment, and brought his experience as a septic installer and in construction to upgrade booths to have water available in order to meet health criteria for food handling. This saved the county money on contracting out these types of jobs and many others, such as fixing fence, trimming trees and so on, he says.
Other ways he brought the fair into profitability included keeping track of cash paid by campers but previously not tracked, and increasing vendors. The board approved a $2 event service fee that paid for a new computerized ticket and money tracking system, bringing in revenue from over 300 tickets that were being given away free in the past.
“I had a state auditor tell me that the money that comes into the county over the four days of the fair is about a $4 million asset to the community by the time it changes hands more than seven times,” says McGuigan. “The budget is a little over $400,000; we were on our way to a $500,000 budget, which would help fix up the falling down buildings. We’re sitting on a multi-million-dollar gem right there at the fair,” says McGuigan.
IT’S TOUGH to find people to serve on the fair board, McGuigan acknowledges. “You donate one evening a month, or two for special meetings, and then you have to be available at the fair, and donate your time as a volunteer for four days. You have to have a vision for the fair, or some kind of interest in the fair to want to donate your time over a very big, family-oriented weekend.”
McGuigan has accepted a job with LHC Construction out of Kalispell, currently on a two-year job to pour the concrete for a major resort construction site in Big Sky.