SANDPOINT — The steps up to the announcer’s booth at the Bonner County Fairgrounds arena were slick on this rainy morning. Fairgrounds foreman Bob Snider unlocked the space and stepped in from the downpour with fair director Rhonda Livingstone right behind.
The booth, like the arena it serves, is basically an open-air affair, covered with a roof, but on days like today, offering little protection from the sideways sheets of rain. We’ve trundled out here to get a look at a sound system, which, at this point, pushes away more arena bookings than it encourages.
“Here it is,” Snider said as he unlocked and opened a wooden cabinet on the south side of the booth.
If you were expecting a state-of-the-art public address system, you’d best dial those expectations back close to 50 years, because the gear inside is of that vintage. A simple, not too powerful amplifier, an added on mixer and microphone and a small boom box, on duty to provide incidental music as needed.
Livingstone sweeps a hand to take in the bleachers across the muddy arena, drawing attention to the clusters of horn-style speakers mounted on poles there.
“This arena was built in 1969 and those were put out there in 1970,” she said. “They’re the same, original speakers.
“Back when they made those, I don’t think they were designed for our kind of weather,” the fair director added. “And you can’t really cover them, so they’ve been out in the elements all these years.”
Unlike, say, a 1970 Bordeaux from Medoc, sound systems don’t tend to age well as they near the half-century mark. And the arena’s equipment is just managing to hang on for dear life.
“It’s gotten so bad that the draft horse people bring their own sound system, because you have to put a fan on ours when you talk to keep it from overheating and shutting off,” said Livingstone.
To call the public address system in the arena a weak link at the fairgrounds would be a generous description. All around the 47-year-old gear, improvements have been made to the facility, garnering both positive attention and additional business. In recent years, the fairgrounds has been awarded the Best Fair trophy and other accolades by the worldwide International Association of Fair and Expos for fairs with attendance of 100,000 and under.
The arena, meanwhile, has been filling up for events such as bull riding competitions, demolition derbies and Enduro-cross races.
“There were barrel racers who wouldn’t come here in the past,” Livingstone said. “Now they think we have one of the best arenas in the whole region.”
Except for one thing – a P.A. system that fiercely mangles whatever signal is unfortunate enough to pass through it. Whether music or spoken word, what comes out of the speakers has become so garbled that, despite the announcer’s best efforts, the result leaves people in the grandstands asking one another, “What did they just say?”
Imagine a guy yelling into a beat-up bullhorn after being wrapped in a wet sleeping bag and shoved into the trunk of great-grandpa’s Oldsmobile. Not exactly audio heaven, in other words.
It’s a situation that highly annoys those who come for riding competitions and horse shows, where equally thrashed speakers send an equally garbled signal to those waiting outside the main arena. If they don’t get the cue to make their entrance, they get disqualified. And that goes over poorly with someone who has gone to the trouble of trailering up a very expensive animal and training like mad for just a few, precious seconds in the spotlight.
“One of the biggest complaints we get from people in the warm-up arena is that they can’t hear,” the fair director said. “And when they can’t hear, they don’t get in on time.”
People in the stands are just as perturbed, some to the point of offering substantial financial support for new gear.
“We had one prominent man who said he’d put $5,000 toward it,” Livingstone said. “He came to see his granddaughters and told me, ‘I can’t even hear their names through your system.’”
The donation of 5 Large would get things moving in the right direction, though the actual finish line sits at the $40,000 mark, according to the director.
The layout of the arena makes it a sonic challenge. For one thing, there are five different seating areas in a round venue, the director explained. And don’t forget that troublesome warm-up arena, which also needs clear audio. Working with local sound technician and sound equipment expert Eddie Fontaine – who has designed and installed systems for several area schools, churches and performance venues – the fair board landed on a configuration that would offer ample power and a weather-resistant speaker array that promises to deliver clear sound to every corner of the arena. Fontaine’s prospectus was one of two the group considered, the second using offshore brands at a nominally lower price – approximately $2,000 less than the U.S.A.-made equipment the Sandpoint soundman recommended.
“But the fair board felt it was important to keep our funds in the states,” Livingstone said.
The timing for this fundraising event couldn’t be better, since the Bonner County Fair turns 90 this year and plans the transform the exhibit building into a combination town square filled with entries and an historical panorama, starting in 1927 and circling the perimeter of the building with news and artifacts from each period leading up to present-day. Even without such a portentous birthday in store, there is cause for celebration at the facility. The fairgrounds, both Livingstone and Snider reported, is on the radar, with more events and higher attendance than ever and a packed campground on site that’s getting rave reviews from the RV set.
“It’s an exciting time for the fairgrounds,” the director said. “People love to come here.
“And we have so many more events out there in the arena now,” she went on. “If we get a better sound system, there are even more groups that would use it. With good sound, we’ll have the ability to do more things and do them better.”
For additional information on the Bonner County Fairgrounds sound system plans, contact Livingstone at 208-263-8414.
Donations – which will be held in a dedicated account until the fundraising goal is reached – can be mailed to: Bonner County Fair Board, 4203 N. Boyer Rd., Sandpoint, ID, 83864. Be sure to include the words, “Sound System Fund” on the check.