Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ex-cellent attendance for Red River finale

Fair promising to get bigger, better with significant expansion plans

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After a first weekend of rain and stormy weather, the sun once again shone on visitors hoping to see the sights one last time as the Red River Ex wrapped up Sunday.

The Ex saw a lot of rain, especially in its first weekend, but Garth Rogerson, CEO of the Ex, said he thought the last day would make up for it. In the first hour of Sunday alone, Rogerson estimated 5,000 people visited the park.

By late afternoon, more than 30,000 people had passed through the gates and that could exceed 40,000 by midnight, Rogerson said.

"It's coming in like crazy," he said.

"At the close of Saturday night, 170,685 we were at," said Rogerson, meaning the Ex would exceed last year's 175,000 visitors but fall short of the record 223,000 three years ago.

There were six days with lousy weather, but great crowds when the sun was out, including the biggest Wednesday turnout in the Ex's history with 27,723 visitors.

Part of Sunday's rush was the free admission the Ex offered between 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., but Rogerson said there was also pent-up demand from people who didn't come out during the rainy days. It's nice to see a lot of people make up for the other days, but it also puts a lot of demand on one day, he said.

"It creates a bit of a challenge for us because it maxes out our resources and we'd rather see the attendance spread out over the (10) days," Rogerson said.

The people who showed up were not complaining about the crowds, though. Wanda Peterson was visiting with her three sons and husband, and said she was expecting more people to take advantage of the free admission.

"It's a lot less busy (than we expected). We thought we were going to have to wait in lines, and we came in and were able to go on rides as soon as we walked up to them," Peterson said.

By noon the crowds were steadily increasing and longer lines were starting to form around the more popular rides. Elsewhere, kiosks and concessions were still relatively empty.

The rain was particularly hard on vendors this year. Mike Issa, who travels around Canada selling clothes and other items from his tent, said the Ex is the biggest event he attends. With six days of rain, Issa said his sales were down by at least 50 per cent compared with last year, though he doesn't attribute all of that to the weather.

"I think the economy this year affected it, not just the rain. I've been here for 15 years. Even on rainy days, maybe it'll be down $500, $1,000 but not this much," Issa said.

While vendors try to make up for lost money and visitors try to make up for lost sun and fun, Rogerson said he's already looking forward to next year and beyond.

"I'm thinking five years from now. We have a lot of work to do before next year... and there's not enough time in the spring," he said.

Rogerson said there'll be a municipal hearing this week on a proposal to add a third major entrance to the site from the intersection with Camp Manitou Road.

"We'd add significant parking" on the west side, he said. "We own 460 acres and the fairground is on only 120 acres of that. We have 200-plus acres we can park on -- lots of work this summer."

Work will begin as early as next week, he said, and the plan is to weatherproof a lot of things. Rogerson recently attended the Indiana State Fair and took away ideas from how they run things.

"They have rain right through their fair and people will come anyway. And I think that's a great example for us."

The plan, said Rogerson, is to have more tents for people to seek shelter under and to build additional permanent buildings for the heritage park.

"You could come and enjoy the music and the food and the exhibits, and walk around tent to tent to tent," he said.

Another big part of the expansion will be a number of western-themed events, including equestrian jumping, heavy horses and barrel racing. But for those hoping for a full-blown stampede, Rogerson said it's not going to go that far.

"We joke about that. We're not getting into rodeo, but many of those western events are popular."

Rogerson said it might be a big change for some people who have gotten used to seeing the same things in the same places, but he said the changes are going to be worthwhile.

"It's going to expand significantly,and (visitors) are going to see many more things coming that they haven't seen before," he said.

oliver.sachgau@freepress.mb.ca nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2014 B4

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