All or nothing? Fairs, vendors face cost concerns amid pandemic unknowns

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Summit County Fair rides
(Farm and Dairy file photo)

Gov. Mike DeWine has encouraged county fair boards across the state to look for ways to preserve the junior fairs, even if senior fair events have to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it’s looking like that might not be possible for many fairs. The reason? Junior fairs can be expensive, and usually rely on senior fair events to offset the cost.

In response to these concerns, Ohio House Reps. Don Jones, R-Freeport, and Shane Wilkins, R-Hillsboro, introduced House Bill 665, May 19, which would help fairs work around budget challenges for this year and provide protections for fairs that cancel.

As Ohio legislators and fair boards try to figure out solutions, people in the carnival industry and other businesses that rely on the fairs are waiting to see if they’ll be able to salvage their 2020 season.

Between junior fair costs and investments that vendors have already made for the year, some believe it needs to be an all or nothing decision.

Costs

Recently, the Ohio Fair Managers Association asked boards to estimate the costs of their junior fairs.

After getting estimates from 40 of Ohio’s 95 fairs, the total cost would already be more than $9 million, said OFMA past president Dan Bullen in his testimony to the Ohio House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee May 20. He added that for local fair, the Greene County Fair, the cost of having only a junior fair would be $124,000.

Most fairs cover the costs of their junior events with gate admissions, games, rides, grandstand events and camping fees.

“If we are not allowed to generate income through these items, fairs will have no money to pay for the junior fair,” Bullen said.

Bullen argued that both junior and senior fair events should proceed this year, following recommendations that include more sanitization, more social distancing and some restrictions on grandstand event attendance, but no restrictions on total attendance.

Bill

House Bill 665 would give fairs more flexibility with how they spend their funds, allows them to receive more money from their counties and provide protections for fairs that cancel due to mass gathering restrictions.

In some counties, if county commissioners own the fairgrounds, the commissioners can take back the grounds if the board or agricultural society does not hold a fair.

The bill would allow fairs to keep control of their grounds, require county treasurers and the department of agriculture to still pay fair managers the amount they would have otherwise received and allow fair organizers to work with the Ohio Harness Horseman’s Association to reschedule horse races if fairs or horse races are canceled due to mass gathering restrictions.

Finally, the bill declares an emergency so that, if passed, it would go into effect immediately.

Rides

The uncertainty about this fair season has people in the carnival industry holding their breath.

“Everybody is literally on pins and needles,” said Dave Grimm, director of business development with Reithoffer Shows. Reithoffer Shows is based in Gibsonton, Florida, but brings its rides to about 50 locations in 16 states, including the Canfield Fair, in Ohio.

In February, Reithoffer Shows was at the Collier County Fair in Naples, Florida, for two days before shutting down due to COVID-19 risks. Now, the carnival industry is completely shut down.

“There’s so much at stake,” Grimm told Farm and Dairy. “The pandemic has caused severe economic strife throughout the entertainment industry that has never happened before.”

Grimm said the company is doing everything it can to get back on the road.

“But we’re at the mercy, of course, of the fairs,” Grimm said.

Fairs are 85% of their business.

“If the fairs don’t operate, we have no place to go,” he said.

Recommendations

Bill Prowant, of the Ohio Amusement Ride Safety Council, and JR Woods, of Durant Enterprise, an amusement ride, games and food company, also testified to the House agriculture committee, May 20.

Prowant noted that amusement ride companies and vendors invest in their business early in or before the season, putting money down on maintenance, training, repairs, licenses and other costs.

“Losing an entire year in the industry means many not recovering,” Prowant said.

Woods added that having a partial fair season would not allow vendors to make up for their expenses, and could also put many fairs at risk financially. He believes the decision needs to be all or nothing.

Industry plans to address health and safety challenges are similar to OFMA’s fair recommendations: more hand washing stations, more sanitizing rides and more social distancing in lines and on rides, Grimm said.

Though many events have already been canceled for the spring and early summer, Grimm said much of the season is still ahead of them. The Ohio State Fair, which canceled May 21, is one of the early state fairs in the country. The heart of fair season, Grimm said, is from Aug. 1 through Nov. 1.

If fairs don’t cancel, he said, “we believe we can hopefully salvage the season.”

While some fairs have made decisions, other Ohio fairs, including several early fairs in June, are still waiting for guidance from the state. Gov. Mike DeWine said May 21 he is reviewing recommendations from his fair advisory group, but those recommendations had not been made public, as of May 22.

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