The 2021 Ohio State Fair is set to go on, after the fair canceled entirely in 2020. But with pandemic restrictions and 2020 impacts lingering, it will be limited.
The Ohio Expositions Commission voted, in an April 8 meeting, to hold a limited Ohio State Fair, centered around agriculture and youth projects, this year. As of now, the fair is not planned to be open to the public.
“No one has a crystal ball to tell us how things will look in July,” said Virgil Strickler, general manager for the expo center and the state fair, in the commission meeting. “The challenges at this time seem to outnumber the opportunities.”
Strickler suggested a limited fair would be the safest and most financially responsible decision for this year. His main priority is to get the fair back up and running in some form.
“That’s our goal, and we’re going to get it done,” Strickler said.
The limited fair Strickler recommended includes youth and senior livestock shows, and non-livestock project judging for youth, along with some concessions. The fair would not include concerts, rides, shopping, musicians or other entertainers.
Livestock competitions are planned to be spaced out over July 19 through Aug. 8, to allow more social distancing. The fair would conclude with a modified sale of champions for youth exhibitors.
The fair is currently planned to be open only to exhibitors, family and guests. Angela Krile, vice chair of the commission, said there are plans to offer livestreams for the shows, as well.
The commission unanimously voted to accept Strickler’s recommendations for the state fair.
Though Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine lifted capacity restrictions for outdoor venues April 5, indoor capacity restrictions remain. DeWine has said all health orders will be lifted if the state reaches 50 cases per 100,000 people for a period of two weeks.
While many people may be ready to get out and go to fairs this summer, Strickler said, there are also many that may not be ready. It seems likely the state fair would see a significant dip in attendance that could put it in the red this year, even if guidelines lift.
At this point, commission chair Andrew Doehrel said, it would probably be too late to plan a full fair, anyway. Planning goes on for months or even years in advance for a state fair.
Staffing continues to be a challenge for the expo center, which is down to only seven staff members, as opposed to the 60 permanent staff it typically has. Strickler also anticipates challenges for hiring a seasonal staff that would usually include about 600 people during a state fair.
“I’m hearing that it is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to find employees right now,” he said.
But there is still some room for flexibility in the plans. If guidelines loosen or lift entirely, the fair could be open to more of the public.
For now, commissioners are keeping definitions of who the fair will be open to loose. They plan to define “family members and guests” more specifically as the fair gets closer.
The expo center’s financial state is starting to rebound after about a year of closures, due largely to a $2 million boost from a contract the expositions commission signed earlier this year with the Columbus Crew for a new stadium on the expo center’s grounds.
“But we can’t just blow that,” Strickler said.
Even with an limited state fair this year, the expo center’s financial position remains precarious. Commissioners are hoping to get more funding from the General Assembly to help them get through the year and put on the state fair.
The $2 million from the contract will help the expo center maintain its basic operations until all events can resume at the same levels they had before the pandemic, but the center is still in a significantly lower financial position than it would usually be while planning for a fair.
And when it comes to running the state fair, Strickler said, “there isn’t a lot of margin for error.”
Expenses to put on the fair are typically about $8.5 million. Revenue tends to be around $9 million, with full concerts, sponsors and an attendance of about 900,000 people.
Krile said concerts are usually what keep the fair out of the red. Under current guidelines, indoor concerts at the center would have a capacity of only about 2,500 people, and the center doesn’t have an outdoor venue to hold concerts at the capacity needed to bring in acts and break even.
“It would actually cost us money to put on the concerts,” Krile said.
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