Pete Poe: An 18-year love of fair

Monday, August 15, 2005
Pete Poe is chairman of the SEMO District Fair Board.

For nearly two decades, Pete Poe has been the man behind the magic of the SEMO District Fair. Curious thing, too, considering that before Poe became involved with the fair 18 years ago, he rarely went.

"It wasn't something that I did very often," said Poe, the president of the fair board. "It wasn't until I got there and met the people who put it on. Then, I realized they were some of the greatest people in the world. I knew immediately it was something I wanted to be a part of."

The fair, held at Arena Park in Cape Girardeau, takes place Sept. 10-17, and is celebrating its 150th anniversary of blending a carnival atmosphere with big-name entertainers, agriculture and other memorable events like the annual demolition derby.

It's an event that draws roughly 100,000 people to the area, making it Southeast Missouri's best attended attraction.

That can mean a big economic impact on the community, according to Kara Clark with the Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

"Of course when there's that many people in the area, they're spending their dollars at places other than the fair," Clark said. "It's great for our local economy."

Poe, a retired hotel manager, first became affiliated with the fair in 1987. That's when Earl James, who was then the president of the fair board, called Poe at the Drury Lodge and asked if they could use some of the hotel's lights and sound equipment for a Lou Hobbs concert.

"I went there to help them out and I've been there ever since," said Poe, 62. "But when I went, I had no idea what it would lead to."

The next year, James asked Poe if he wanted to be part of a standing committee that organizes the fair and Poe agreed.

"It was like a family," he said. "It was work, too, but it was work I wanted to be a part of."

James said he knew after Poe lent a hand that he would be good for the fair. Through his job, Poe was connected to city officials, which James said is important.

"You have to go to them for many things," James said. "Pete is very active in the community, and I thought he'd be a super guy on the board and lead the fair. He's done a good job with it."

But it's not always fun, James said.

"Really, it's a hard job," James said. "When he says he has 100 meetings a year, he had 100 meetings a year. I know because I get through them. You have to love it. It's hot, dirty and sometimes wet work."

One of the first tasks Poe was given was a failed experiment. Poe was part of a group that organized a fair event called The Inn Place, which was held inside the Arena Building, where exhibits were on display, entertainment was put on and beverages were sold.

Poe gave it his best for two years.

"But it didn't go over well," Poe said. "It apparently wasn't what fair-goers wanted. We wanted it to be something different, to be innovative. But if it doesn't work, we don't want to force it on them."

By that time, Poe was on the fair's board of directors. Poe became more involved in the operation of the fair, helping get sponsors and developing advertising campaigns.

If it sounds like a business, Poe said that's because it is.

"You bet it's a business," he said.

The fair board, which prepares for the next year's fair as soon as that year's fair ends, deals with advertising costs, budgets and payroll costs. They figure estimates, costs of carnival rides and work hard to bring in marquis names for entertainment, such as this year's Randy Travis.

And Poe and other organizers have turned things around.

"We went from losing $70,000 a year to making $70,000 every year," he said.

And the cost of entertainers continues to climb. Poe doesn't want to reveal how much Travis is costing, but he did say it's more money than the board has ever spent on entertainment.

But it takes big names to draw in big crowds, he said.

But he wants people to know it's not a one-man show. Far from it.

He said there are 12 people on the board of directors, 12 on an advisory board, 45 on a volunteer board and 200 volunteers who put in countless hours to put together a quality fair.

Poe said he hopes that people leave the fair thinking that there was so much to do that they'll have to come back to see the rest.

"We're going to continue to work to make it more profitable," Poe said. "But we want people to enjoy themselves."

As for Poe, he's having a ball.

"It's not a job, it's not a chore," he said. "It's fun."

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