By Pete Chiodo
COCHRANTON — With spatula in hand, Curt Oakes spent the better part of last Sunday presiding over a stupendously crammed stovetop in the social hall kitchen at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, flipping countless pancakes and piles of home fries, turning over miles of crackling sausage links and stirring giant skillets full of bright yellow scrambled eggs.
It was a juggling act as much as it was cooking. Yet Oakes performed with the kind of calm that only a true pro can muster.
“I’m used to it,” he said. “I’ve been a chef all my life and I teach culinary arts up at Erie County Technical School. That’s my real job.”
On this particular Sunday, however, Oakes was busy with his other job — vice president on the board of directors for the Cochranton Community Fair. He and a small volunteer army of egg-crackers, gravy-stirrers, tray-fillers and pot-scrubbers were making breakfast for a pretty decent chunk of the population of Cochranton.
The annual breakfast buffet is the fair’s one and only fundraiser outside of the fair itself. And with the recent news coming out of Harrisburg that state funding for fairs could be cut almost in half, an event like Sunday’s breakfast has never been more significant.
“For us, (the proposed cuts) are tragic,” said Johanna Schneider, the fair’s secretary and manager. “For some of the bigger fairs, it’s a pain in the neck. For us, it’s a do-or-die type of thing.”
According to Gov. Ed Rendell’s proposed budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year, the state’s Fair Fund, which reimburses portions of operating costs and premiums for fairs all across the state, will be cut from $3.6 million to $2 million.
That could trickle down to thousands of dollars in cuts for a fair like Cochranton’s.
“We usually average right around $12,000 from the state,” said Teri Pearl, the fair’s treasurer and assistant secretary. That $12,000 was a little more than a third of the fair’s total operating cost for last year
“That money goes to the cost of conducting the fair, supplying electricity, the tents for the livestock, for ground upkeep, any repairs, any equipment that has to be purchased,” Pearl said.
Thousands of dollars in losses can be devastating for a fair like Cochranton, which is a small, community event that doesn’t charge admission.
“We’re fine for this year,” Schneider said. “But the years to come, we’re just not quite sure what’s going to happen.”
Does that mean the Cochranton Fair, and its eight decades of history, may be coming to an end?
“I don’t know,” said Schneider. “Everybody wants to keep that going. We’re one of the older fairs and I’m sure that we’ll all work very hard to try and keep that going some way. And we’re hoping that the funds still come through.”
For now, the fair’s organizers are taking a wait-and-see approach. They and other state fairs are currently lobbying legislators, trying to get all the Fair Funds put back into the budget.
However, if the budget does pass and reimbursement funds are cut for the state’s fairs, those on the Cochranton fair board will see how this year’s fair goes before deciding what their next move will be.
Will they make changes to the fair to cut costs? Hold more fundraisers throughout the year?
“I’m not sure,” said Schneider. “We’ll face that after this fair when we know more about the funding.”
Maybe it was the knowledge that the fair could be in trouble that brought a larger-than-expected crowd to Our Lady of Lourdes for Sunday’s breakfast fundraiser.
The board planned for its usual 300 guests. Instead it got about 425, according to Schneider. The organizers had to make three extra trips to the grocery store to get more food.
“We’ve gone through pretty close to 100 pounds of sausage, about 50 pounds of ham, three cases of bacon,” said Oakes back in the kitchen. “We used about a 100 dozen eggs and we’ve gone through about 150 pounds of potatoes, too, not to mention the biscuits and all that stuff.
“And we’re still cooking.”
That’s an encouraging sign, at least for one diner.
“I’m glad to see the turnout and I wish that more people would support the fair,” said Cochranton native Becky Jordan, who made the trip down from her current home in Meadville to attend Sunday’s breakfast with her friend Dianne Merchbaker.
“The people support the town of Cochranton,” said Jordan. “They support everything here. When you’re born and raised here, you come back. Roots, you know.”
Pete Chiodo can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
By Pete Chiodo