In an Ocala Style exclusive interview, Ashley Wheeler-Gerds, general manager of Paddock Mall, announced today that the Marion County Fair will be hosted this year at the Paddock Mall.
This is the first time that the fair, which is put on by Florida Kids Helping Kids (FKHK), will be held within city limits. FKHK Founder Gerri Gerthe explained that finding a venue for the fair has been a considerable challenge in recent years. Sadly, the 2019 fair had to be cancelled because there was not a suitable site available to host the fair. And history almost repeated itself for 2020 when the 200-acre property that had been donated to use for this year’s festivities fell through when problems with the terrain and access to the water supply made it impossible to move forward with that site.
That’s when Gerthe reached out to Wheeler-Gerds. “Ashley and I had been discussing the possibility of having a carnival at the mall,” Gerthe explains. “So I went to Ashley and said, ‘We need help!’ and she said, ‘Let’s make it work.’”
“We’ve been involved with Florida Kids Helping Kids (FKHK) for the past year,” Wheeler-Gerds shares. “For us, this was a way to give back to a community partner. We want people to be safe and enjoy the fair. And to help FKHK raise money.”
Assisting FKHK in its mission to help the community’s children has special meaning for Wheeler-Gerds and the mall staff. FKHK focuses on children ages 3-18, and working on the fair activities allows them opportunities to be creative and help out their community. Gerthe says the whole thing started with four girls, a hot dog cart and a concerned mother. “Seriously, my mission was to keep my youngest daughter and her friends out of trouble and from running with the wrong crowd.”
When she could not get adults to help her, she reached out to kids. “We were doing a fundraiser for her school and there was a kid there that had bone cancer. They had had to remove six inches of bone from below his knee and his mom needed a walk-in shower for him because she couldn’t lift him into the bathtub as she had a prosthetic leg herself. Kids love helping other kids. So we started with our Relay For Life team and grew into this. We started off doing fundraisers for ill kids. The key was keeping the kids busy and engaged, so they weren’t getting into trouble. I taught them everything from cooking to painting, sewing to needlework. And critical thinking…that was key. I teach them to recycle and about 90 percent of what we do for the fair involves recycled materials. Our float that we do every year is made from at least 70 percent recycled materials.”
FKHK’s long-term goal is to raise enough money to purchase a minimum of 30 acres of land to establish a permanent home for the fair and also to be able to form a co-op with other local nonprofits in order to have a place for them to host fundraising events as well.
To move this year’s fair forward, the two organizations worked with the city to obtain the required permits, and the fair had its site. The fair will be located on the southeast section of the mall, near the old Sears store. “Plus, we’ll have indoor facilities for fairgoers and the option for indoor food and entertainment if the weather gets iffy,” Wheeler-Gerds offered.
The mall’s location at 3100 SW College Road makes it a convenient and centralized location. “We’re reachable from many surrounding counties and cities,” Wheeler-Gerds said. “It’s a safe, central location.”
Additional security staff, off-site parking, and local law enforcement will help make getting to and from the fair safe. The mall is also allowing various 501(c)(3) organizations to offer special VIP parking spots in the parking lot, which will allow the groups to operate individual fundraisers for their organizations.
Although the change of venue is a win for FKHK, it also came with considerable setbacks. “We had all our sponsors in place. But when we lost our venue, we lost every one of our sponsors,” Gerthe explains. “I haven’t been able to replace all those sponsors or even advertise yet.”
Not only is getting the word out crucial, but FKHK is actively seeking sponsors for various elements and areas, from prizes for the kids, additional security, tent sponsors for the livestock and booth sponsors, to the practical matter of either needing to secure a donation or loan of a stage to use for her lineup of local performers or help to repair their current 18×24 stage, which is in a state of disrepair.
“We need to totally rebuild the floor and add stairs,” Gerthe explains. “I don’t have the manpower or the funds for the materials to rebuild it. I have all these great local performers volunteering their time to come and entertain, but if I can’t get a safe stage to use then I won’t have a place for them to perform outside.”
The current lineup of talent includes: The Jay Alan Six, Donna J – The Lady In Black, Jay Bailey and Gemma Adams.
The fair begins on Thursday, April 2nd and will run through Sunday, April 5th. Admission is free for all ages, but the fair will offer a $5 off coupon for unlimited wristbands for rides on Thursday and Sunday. See their Facebook page for details on how to access the coupons.
To learn more about becoming a sponsor or a volunteer, contact FKHK by calling (352) 347-0883. Visit www.marioncountyfairfl.com for more information about attending and check www.paddockmall.com/events-news for further updates and announcements.