Parkers prefer prime spots

CANFIELD -- Fistfuls of cash are easy to come by if you're in the right place at the right time.
For homeowners whose properties are near entrances to the Canfield Fair, the size of their yards correspond with the size of their windfalls -- if they're willing to sacrifice lush lawns for worn and rutted turf.
At house after house, neighbors have set up folding chairs and cash boxes and posted signs inviting fairgoers to park in their yards. Charging $4 or $5 -- depending on proximity to fair gates -- they collect the cash from car after car, filling cash boxes and aprons.
Parking is free at the fair, but some fairgoers would rather put out a few bucks than hike a quarter of a mile through a field full of thousands of parked cars.
"We parked here so we could find the car," said Mary Jane Chester. She and her husband, Lou, are visiting the Canfield Fair from Big Canoe, Ga. Chester was a teacher in the Poland school district for 18 years and visited the fair many times, but her husband, whom she met after moving to Georgia, has never been to the fair.
They gladly plopped down $5 for their premium parking space in a yard at the corner of state Route 46 and Fairground Boulevard.
Closer spot: Other out-of-state visitors, Laurie and Andy Skrobola, who traveled from North Carolina, parked in the same yard lot. They also are originally from the area and have visited the fair many times. They aren't worried about losing their minivan in the endless field of parked cars on the fairgrounds, but with three small boys, it makes sense for them to park as close to kiddieland as they can get.
"We're doing rides today," Laurie said, "and this is right by kiddieland. If we were going to look at the animals, or just to walk around, we'd park at the fair. We'll do that another day."
She and her family have been paying to park in that lot for at least five years.
Paul Miller of Boardman has been parking there for 10 years or more. "It's just easier," he said. "If it rains, it makes a mess [in the fields at the fair]. It's not so bad here. I like this spot. It's close.
"But," he noted, "it has gone up in price. When I first started parking here, I think it was only $3. If I was coming to the fair every day this year, I'd get preferred parking at the fair, it's only $25. I came every day last year. We're only coming out three days this year. I parked here all six days."
Parkers prefer this lot for many reasons, said Rachel Feld, whose family owns the property. They also operate Widow Brown's Parking across the street on property owned by a neighbor.
"We get everything -- senior citizens, mothers with young children, anyone who want to park close."
How busy the lot is depends on the day, she continued. "We get busy whenever there are shows, and it gets busier on the weekends. We fill up." Feld is unsure of how many cars will fit in the lots her family oversees, but the family employs 19 workers during the fair's run.
Operation: Employees are primarily teen-agers who work eight-hour shifts. During their shifts, they are allowed two 15-minute breaks and a half-hour lunch. Food and beverages are provided by Feld's family. They all wear fluorescent orange vests and keep in contact with one another via walkie-talkies.
It's a sophisticated operation involving flaggers, parking attendants who collect the cash and distribute professionally printed cards parkers place on their dashboards, and younger teens who keep the parking yards free of litter.
Feld's family parks cars from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day of the fair. They've been doing it for the past 14 years and have built up such a business that Feld, who is employed as a social worker in New Jersey, returned this year just to help park cars.
How much the family takes in is uncertain, Feld said, "but if it wasn't worth it, we wouldn't do it."
Profit: DiRusso's restaurant, on state Route 46 near the main entrance to the fair, closes during fair time. The company operates several concession trailers at the fair selling DiRusso's signature sausage sandwiches and doesn't want to compete with itself, said restaurant manager Tim Hallaman. Fair traffic also deters restaurant patrons.
But that doesn't mean the restaurant doesn't turn a profit during the six-day run of the fair.
Some 250 cars will fit in DiRusso's parking lot, and at $4 a pop, that's not chump change. According to the parking attendant who identified himself only as Jim, many parkers return year after year.
"It's easy to find, and a lot of people like the fact that its paved. This lot is premium when it rains," he said. "We also give them a coupon for a free pop when they buy a sausage sandwich at DiRusso's concession stands.
"It's all about customer service. We cater to people. We put the elderly and handicapped up front, and we always find a spot for them," he continued. "If there is a woman with some little kids, or a woman alone, we walk her to her car. It's personalized parking. A lot of people just like someone to say hello to them."
The lot is lighted and, he said, "we stay here until the last car leaves. If you're gonna blow 50 or 60 bucks at the fair, what's $4 more?"
DiRusso's also sells parking passes that guarantee frequent fairgoers a good parking space.
Preferred parking: Premium parking has become increasingly popular with fairgoers, said Don Booth, the fair director who oversees parking. The fair began offering preferred parking three years ago and demand has mandated that space allotted to it be increased each year.
This year, Booth said, 160 preferred parking spaces are available near Gate F; 130 of those have been sold. Passes cost $25 and are good all six days of the fair.

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