From all appearances, Mary Graves is the perfect ambassador to represent the Key Peninsula Community Fair’s best interests as it continues to grow. She is a cheery woman in a cotton candy pink jacket with a hearty laugh that bubbles up often. She’s an inventive woman who, as a newcomer to Poulsbo (from Kent) 18 years ago, saw a need and filled it by establishing a community-based business welcomed by homeowners and developers alike.

Beginning then with her own unfamiliarity with service locations for auto licensing, reliable tradespeople, library, etc., she made a list, then shared it with others new to her 19-lot development. The list became a booklet, and in just two years, her single sheet of information compiled for her own use had become 100 pages of information with a 4,000-book annual publication that included businesses and advertising.

For Graves, that was a stepping-stone into careers that included being executive director of two chambers of commerce and a director on the board of another. Currently, she is the event coordinator for Gig Harbor’s Maritime Gig Festival, and executive director of Poulsbo’s Third of July day-long festival that concludes with fireworks. Since last summer, she is also the new director of the Key Peninsula Community Fair (KPCF).

The first two things Director Graves did were change the dates of the fair, and contract the services of a different carnival vendor. By moving the fair weekend to July, new possibilities were opened for everyone.

“Community organizations operating as nonprofits don’t have people to help them with marketing and promotion,” says Graves, “and that’s my background.” The July move means residents are not forced to choose between the fair and Ren Faire in Wauna, the Bluegrass Festival in Olalla, and Old Timers’ Day in Longbranch.

With the new dates, the KPCF is the first fair of the season, making possible the entry of 4-H Clubs’ participation. By August, the 4-H-ers are gearing up for county and state fairs, with which KPCF could not compete. Graves’ hope is that moving the event to the earlier date will also give 4-H youth another venue to exhibit their skills. An open-class event for showing animals will be part of the fair in 2006, so kids who do not belong to 4-H can join in the fun.

“It’s just Marketing 101,” Graves says. “Move the event away from (other competing) major events.”

Additionally, to receive an “official fair” classification from the State Fair Association, the KPCF must have a specific number of animals shown in several categories, for a specific number of years in succession. Once this classification is attained, better judges and larger purses will be available to the contestants.

The carnival in 2006 will feature newer, safer rides, such as the Zipper, and a larger merry-go-round. There will be something to appeal to both young children and teens, including a midway. Entry fees in 2006 will be rolled back to one dollar, and booth fees for vendors have also been adjusted downward. Although the Website (www.keyfair.com) has not yet been updated for 2006, Graves suggests potential vendors and other interested parties check it toward the end of January for fees and applications.

Last summer, after an interview process that began in May, Graves’ job started about three weeks prior to the fair’s August weekend. She reports to an executive board of directors, whose only business is the fair, organized as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Also involved are a dozen or so committees planning and reporting in on everything from parking to hot-dog vendors, and some 300 volunteers all working together to “get everybody to have fun and bring the community their event.”

When asked why she applied for this one-event job, Graves’ answer was quick. “This community drove me to want this job. Longbranch, Vaughn, Key Center— they just decided to have a fair, gathered volunteers, and pulled it off. It’s a reflection of the community — a great agri-vision of this community.”

She said she’s never been involved in a community where everyone is involved, from businesses that sponsor the event, to the level of volunteerism she’s found here.

About a month after the fair closed last August, organizers held a retreat that resulted in new bylaws, the pricing rollbacks, and an updated mission statement. They looked at suggestions, procedures, process and timelines. They also considered the fair’s appeal to local business sponsors and vendors west of the Narrows, including those in Mason and Kitsap counties, as well as Key Center, Purdy, Gig Harbor and Belfair. Graves wants to provide value to supporting businesses, and is looking at several ways of accomplishing this, from program inclusion to banners and announcements.

In September, Graves attended the State Fair Convention in Yakima, and in November, the International Fair Convention in Las Vegas. At each, she spent three to four days in workshops and classes, “picking their brains dry” for new ideas she could bring back. Particularly at the international convention, she became something of a celebrity, in an odd-duck sort of way. There, when fair directors talked about a “new” fair, they meant an event 35 to 50 years old. When they learned Graves was representing a five-year-old event, there was no newcomer experience to offer this upstart fair. One Midwest community fair director, she says, asked her for advice because they had no community support and were failing.

She discovered how rare it is that local businesses are willing to chance a community fair, both in-kind and with cold, hard cash. Shaking her head in mock amazement, she says, “Communities don’t ‘just decide’ to have a fair. It’s just unheard of!” At least it was, until the Key Pen community did just that.

Her head full of ideas for a pizza-eating contest, chili cook-off, and kiddie-parade, Graves hurries off to a committee meeting. “Send in those entries for the ‘Best Cookies Ever’ contest!” she calls through the doorway. “I know there are great cookie-cooks out there, and we want you at the fair!”

As Graves would say, “See you at the Key Peninsula Community Fair in July.”

Come hungry.

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