Umatilla County Fair and Farm-City Pro Rodeo attendance ticked up in 2019 despite a thunderstorm that sent attendees scattering one night.

Al Davis, manager of the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center, included an update on the fair during his presentation to the Hermiston city council on Monday night.

Davis said attendance was estimated at just under 90,000 for the fair and rodeo combined, with about 16,000 rodeo attendees. He said when he checked parking on Wednesday night, parking pass sales were within $3 of what they had been the year before.

“They’re steady,” he said of the numbers. “We’re not seeing a huge influx up or down.”

In 2018, fair board member Lucas Wagner told the Hermiston Herald that attendance that year had been estimated at 82,000 — up about 800 from the year before that — but revenue from concessions and other sales was “significantly up,” suggesting it may have been even higher. Rodeo attendance was estimated at about 16,000 people in 2018.

Davis told the council he thought the severe lightning that happened on Friday night put a damper on Saturday’s numbers.

While the rodeo did resume late Friday night after a break for the storm, many people went home instead of sheltering in their vehicles or in buildings, and the forecast had predicted a strong chance of more lightning Saturday night.

He said they learned a lot from putting the fair’s emergency procedures to the test, including the need to better explain that the rodeo would continue later that night, as per PRCA rules.

“We learned that ‘hunker in place’ turns into ‘evacuate’ real fast,” he said.

He said in today’s climate of frequent mass shootings, people tend to panic and not listen well when police start telling them to leave the area. Councilor Roy Barron also pointed out that Friday was Latino Night, and said that members of the Latino community might have also been more inclined to worry when told by law enforcement they needed to shelter in place.

Davis said there was some back-up in the parking lot during that time as EOTEC staff sheltered in buildings away from the lightning, but people still tried to leave the fairgrounds without anyone directing traffic.

As EOTEC has resumed normal operations since the fair, Davis said they had a great third quarter with 33 events, bringing in $34,000 more in rental fees than the same quarter last year.

Davis said they continue to improve the property, including getting the last of the security cameras installed and running.

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