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Dave Roepke, Published July 21 2010

Red River Valley Fair to review "Special Needs Day" after complaints

Knowing the Red River Valley Fair was dedicating a day to those with special needs this year, Kate Dahl wasn’t sure what to expect.

But the Fargo mother of a 4-year-old autistic daughter was hoping they would find a light crowd and a simple check-in process.

“We need that low-stress environment to enjoy the fair,” she said. “Once those children see those games, the fair has started in their head.”

Instead, Dahl ended up leaving after about 40 minutes and two rides, frustrated by where to register and the long lines on what was not just “Special Needs Day” but also “Kids Day” on July 13 at the fair.

Dahl wasn’t the only one.

Prompted by complaints, the fair is going to re-evaluate how the special-needs promotion works and meet with concerned parents to hash out the details, a fair official said Tuesday.

“We need to find a happy medium,” said Jodi Buresh, the fair’s assistant general manager.

Buresh said it was the second year the fair’s carnival provider, Murphy Brothers Exposition, has given free unlimited rides to special-needs fairgoers.

Participation grew from 150 in 2009 to 583 this year, making the special-needs giveaway add up to almost $18,000 this year, she said.

Parents such as Nicole Thorson said the free ticket doesn’t matter as much as the crowds. She prefers a time exclusively set aside for those with disabilities.

“They didn’t research this at all,” Thorson said. “It’s not a Special Needs Day. It’s just a free ticket.”

Buresh said the fair has received mostly negative and sometimes conflicting comments about the event.

Fairgoers who registered as special-needs last year, for instance, received a sticker that identified them for ride operators, Buresh said. So after hearing complaints about how the practice singled out those special-needs patrons unnecessarily, there were no stickers this year. But there were new complaints this year about the lack of stickers.

It was with that sort of reaction in mind that Buresh said in a recent

e-mail to Thorson that she doubted Special Needs Day would return in 2011. On Tuesday, Buresh said fair officials will decide by Oct. 1 whether to ask Murphy Brothers to continue the promotion, but the final call is theirs.

“The majority probably did like it, but we just haven’t heard it,” she said.

Buresh said the carnival operators were surprised to get complaints about the event, which has gone well in other cities.

After e-mailing with another parent who had concerns, Christine Schmitz of West Fargo, Buresh said the fair’s been getting a second wave of feedback – this time mostly thankful.

Schmitz said the rides thrilled her autistic 3-year-old, though she, too, prefers a separate time for special-needs riders.

“To be quote-unquote normal for the day is so exciting,” Schmitz said.

Buresh said she was encouraged by the message from Schmitz and will meet with her and others concerned in a couple weeks.

“It’s good to hear those things because why would we continue something like that if it’s not working?” Buresh said.

As to potential changes, it’s too early to tell. Exclusive time on the rides for the disabled might not be workable because of cost constraints, Buresh said.

Still, she’s confident a compromise can be reached.

“It’ll work out,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535