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Fairs struggle in tough economy; Chautauqua reports smaller crowd, as others hold steady

It's that last little slice of Americana that can be depended on every summer: the county fair.

The Cattaraugus County Fair, in its 169th year, is one of the classics. Like any good county fair, it offers midway rides, classic cars like a 1949 Packard and those wonderful greasy-spoon eats: Italian sausage, french fries with gravy and deep-fried Twinkies.

Organizers say that they're doing well. Attendance has grown year after year, and they're expecting at least 70,000 visitors for the week when the gates close Sunday.

But for other county fairs, keeping the tradition alive can be an annual struggle. Much depends on the weather, and with tough economic times, people are cutting back.

The Chautauqua County Fair in Dunkirk, held last week, attempted to increase its attendance numbers this year by offering discounted tickets online -- $6 a ticket, compared to $9 weekday and $10 weekend tickets at the gate. Yet attendance fell by about 12 percent compared with 2009 and 2010.

"I believe some of that reflects the economy, and I believe that's something that's not unique to us this year," said Jason Merritt, a spokesman for the Chautauqua fair. He said the fair's board is in the middle of a three-year plan to make it more modern and seem more enticing to cost-conscious families.

"Everyone is watching their pennies these days," he said.

But for those who can spare the cash, the county fair offers a unique opportunity to see prize, blue-ribbon livestock like goats, sheep and pigs -- not to mention the cattle, which come in two sizes: big and bigger.

"We, of course, went to the animals right away. My two-year-old, Avery, just loves them," said Debbie Holloway of Allegany, who was watching her grandchildren enjoy a merry-go-round Thursday afternoon at the fair in Little Valley. "I think her favorite are the horses."

Holloway and her family attend many of the region's fairs each year and plan to make the 60-mile trek from home to Hamburg to attend the Erie County Fair, which starts Wednesday and runs through Aug. 21.

"It's so much more commercialized," said Linda Conlin, referring to the Erie County Fair. She is one of the organizers of the Niagara County Fair, which runs through Sunday in Lockport. That fair has kept its admission price low, at $2, which has helped its attendance numbers remain steady over the past several years.

"We don't make a great deal of money," especially compared with the Erie County Fair, which charges a $10 admission, Conlin said. "If anything, we might break even on it, but we try to make it as reasonable as possible for as long as we can."

But all profits do end up going back into the fairgrounds, whether in Lockport, Little Valley or Hamburg. The Erie County Fair alone has spent more than $1 million in the past year redoing blacktop and plumbing.

"They aren't the most apparent things to the guest, but they cost a lot of money and really do help repair and maintain the property," said Jessica Underberg, the Erie County Fair's assistant manager.

But, despite their differences, the county fairs are, at their core, about three things: fun, food and livestock.

"Here, we've got so many choices for people, families especially, to come and spend their entertainment dollars," said Nell Fellows, the secretary for the Cattaraugus fair. "We're just lucky and fortunate that a lot of people decide to come here."