At fair, no Pepsi, only Coke

After decades of soft drink sponsorship, Ridgefield-based Corwin Beverage Co. outbid for contract

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 

With the familiar Coca-Cola logo reigning over the Clark County Fairgrounds this year, an era has ended for Pepsi Cola and the Corwin family that distributes the soft drink company's many beverage products in Clark County.

Courtney Corwin Barker, whose father, Kyle Corwin, long presided over the 71-year-old Corwin Beverage Co., cringes at the high-profile change. Her dethroned Ridgefield Pepsi supplier had been the annual fair's beverage sponsor and its only soft drink provider for decades.

Corwin Barker, 37, admits the fair's switch from Pepsi can only be blamed on her company's failure to outbid Coke, which proposed a $35,000-per-year sponsorship of the event for the next five years. Coca-Cola's bid included coolers to store the products at each concession stand and staff to restock the beverages during the event. Corwin Beverage Co.'s highest bid was $18,000 per year for a two-year sponsorship that did not include staff during the fair hours, said Justin Kobluk, executive director of the Fair Services Management Group, which manages, operates and markets the Clark County Fairgrounds and facilities.

Corwin had just wrapped up a five-year, $25,000- to $35,000-per-year contract to sponsor the fair. At $150,000 total, the agreement didn't pencil out for her company after paying for personnel to work the event, Corwin Barker said.

With the tighter profit margins, "We would have had to raise our prices substantially and we just weren't willing to do that," said Corwin Barker, the company's vice president of marketing and communications.

That didn't make sense to Kobluk, who said he believed exclusivity at the fair would generate enough revenue for Corwin Beverage or any other soft drink supplier to come out ahead.

More than 251,890 people attended the 10-day Clark County Fair in 2011, and they spent between $130,000 and $140,000 on food and beverages, according to a report compiled by John Morrison, fair manager.

"We responded to the bid, we're happy to have it," said Chris Hatley, key account development manager for Coke, who took the lead in preparing the company's bid.

Corwin Barker feels her company can do more for the community by not sponsoring this year's fair concession. The family-owned Pepsi bottling company sponsors more than 300 community events each year.

Eliminating its loss at the fair leaves more money for other, mostly break-even sponsorships and outright donations, she said.

"By shifting that money over, we're able to donate more to schools, to the firefighters -- we're able to reach more people," she said. Her company co-owns a bottling plant in Tumwater and is part of a co-op that does not rely on corporate help. Coca-Cola Co.'s nearest corporate bottling plant is in Wilsonville, Ore.

But with the fair burned deep into her family's psyche, being an outsider at this week's fair will be difficult for Corwin Beverage and its staff of approximately 130 employees, Corwin Barker said.

She said for years Kyle Corwin secured the fair sponsorship with a handshake and by offering sponsorship days and perks that included staff to serve the fair's concessionaires.

"Our whole family knew not to plan anything for the first two weeks of August," Corwin Barker said. "I grew up out at the fair. It's where I learned the business from my dad."

Corwin died in 2006 and his agreement with fair managers ended at about the same time, she said.

"They approached us and were seeking a monetary sponsorship to continue," said Corwin Barker, whose company was started in downtown Vancouver in 1941 by her great-grandparents, Laura and Kyle Kendall, and her grandparents, Harold and Barbara Corwin.

Although Corwin Barker was disappointed in fair management's decision, "We understand," she said. "Business is business and the fair is a great community event. Maybe some day we can be a part of it again."