By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Business is booming at the Hillsborough County Fairgrounds in Dover, where events on tap include the Tampa Bay Rodeo and Family Festival in July, the Back-to-School Bash in August and the Hillsborough County Fair in November, followed by the year-ending Tampa Bay Festival of Lights.
Meanwhile, thanks to the ever-increasing draw of youth livestock exhibitors, the 11-day fair is set to open Nov. 2 with further expansion to the livestock exhibit area. Part one of that expansion debuted at the 2022 fair, where the covered space measuring 150 feet wide and 125 feet replaced an aging tent.
“The expansion definitely gave youth livestock exhibitors more space and more of a secure facility, which makes it easier to both exhibit and view animals,” said Hillsborough County Fair Manager Suzanne Holcomb. “This year’s expansion allows us to create a wash area that will be under cover as well, with good drainage and lighting.”
Upon completion, the livestock expo will amount to roughly 29,000 square feet at an expansion cost of $2.2 million in state grant funding. “Every year we pretty much maxed out on space,” Holcomb said. “Now, with more space, more kids get the chance to come out and exhibit their animals, which is a great thing.”
Along with the livestock expo, outside rentals are booked for the 20,000-square-foot exhibition building, 5,000-square-foot open-air entertainment pavilion and rodeo-sized outdoor arena. Rentals managed by Holcomb, under the auspices of the Greater Hillsborough County Fair Association Board of Directors, include the upcoming Dairy Campout (July 7-8), Coastal State Rabbit Show (Aug. 5), First Class Promotions Car Show (Sept. 3) and Florida Lifted Truck Show (Sept. 30-Oct. 1).
“Because we’re a venue that has multiple buildings and spaces, we’re hosting a variety of different events, including private parties, weddings, graduation ceremonies, car shows, trade shows, community meetings and more,” Holcomb said.
Community partners include the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which trains its mounted posse members in the fairgrounds arena.
That’s the same arena set to host the rodeo scheduled for July 14 and 15. It follows the two-day rodeo in April and leads up to the three-day rodeo at the Hillsborough County Fair in November, which includes a third-day finale for champions.
According to Holcomb, the rodeo both nights in April drew a sold-out crowd of 5,000 spectators, thanks to the appeal of bull riding, bronco riding and barrel racing. The event draws cowboys and cowgirls from throughout the south who are eager “to test their skills against some of the best bucking horses and bulls in all of rodeo,” according to fair officials.
“The appeal, especially in this part of the county, is the entertainment of seeing western sports,” Holcomb said. “Bull riding is always the big event, where entrants are in there for bragging rights as they compete for money awards. They try to stay on for eight seconds, which, if you’ve ever ridden a bucking bull, is a long time.”
Top billing is given to seven-time Professional Rodeo Association Announcer of the Year Matt McGee, on tap to present “lively and hilarious entertainment between competitions.” Select competitors will ride Georgia Smoke Shop, a “legendary, undefeated bull.” And festival goers can test their skills on the mechanical bull and speed down the giant slide.
There’s a monster truck demo to view, live music on the Bartow Ford Beer Barn entertainment stage and fair food offerings, including corn dogs, BBQ, funnel cakes, ice cream, pizza and hot-pressed Cuban sandwiches.
Gates for the rain or shine event open 5 p.m. for the festival and 8 p.m. for the rodeo at the Hillsborough County Fairgrounds in Dover, at 215 Sydney Washer Road.
The Back-to-School Bash, set for noon to 5 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 12, with free admission, involves a partnership with Hillsborough County school district officials, on tap to bring resources for vaccinations and tutoring and nutritional services. Expected activities for kids include bounce houses, yard games and volleyball tournaments. A school supply drive to help kids get the materials they need is scheduled to start July 1. For more, including information for exhibitors and local businesses seeking to donate raffle baskets, call fair officials.
The Hillsborough County Fair is set to run Nov. 2-12, with this year’s theme, “Rooted in Tradition” following last year’s theme, “Homegrown Fun.” Additional information, including contest and exhibit deadlines, will be forthcoming starting July 1, Holcomb said. Harvest Award nominations are due July 15.
The Tampa Bay Festival of Lights includes dates from Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23, through Christmas Eve, Dec. 31.
For information on events, dates, applications, general admission, rental costs and more, visit www.HillsboroughCountyFair.com/, or call: 813-737-FAIR (3247).