Ohio county fairs back in the saddle after challenging 2020

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Two girls pet goats at a fair.
Jamie Lewis, 10, pets Jasper, a dairy goat, at the Trumbull County Fair, July 15, while her sister, Marlie Lewis, 8, checks out another goat pen in the barn. Jamie and Marlie both showed Pygmy goats at the fair this year. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

A year ago, some Ohio fairgrounds stood empty for most of the summer. Now, with COVID-19 cases mostly waning and guidelines lifted, they’re back in business for the 2021 season.

“I think it is affecting us — and I hate to say this — in a good way, because people are more excited to come out this year,” said Toni Dunbar, Trumbull County Fair Board director.

While some fairs still held junior fairs in 2020, others canceled completely, whether due to concerns about finances, health or meeting guidelines — or a mix of all three.

For the Trumbull County Fair, not having guidelines until the end of May in 2020 meant the board and staff didn’t have enough time to plan, Dunbar said. This year, they had more time to prepare, before the fair began July 13.

Fairs are continuing to have extra sanitizing stations around the grounds, aided partly by COVID-19 relief funding. Some have signs reminding people to social distance and to be cautious. But, otherwise, they are looking much like they did in 2019.

“There’s a lot of excitement in our community about having the fair back,” said Dave Kreis, president of the Muskingum County Fair Board. “There’s a lot of people stepping up and helping.”

Junior fair

In Trumbull County, 4-H numbers have dropped off a bit, Dunbar said. Last year, many 4-H’ers already had their projects when the fair canceled. While they were able to sell their livestock projects separately, some may have been hesitant to invest in another project this year, without knowing what would happen this year.

“That’s a lot of money to put out, and not knowing … we couldn’t give them an answer; they knew that — nobody knew what was going to go on,” Dunbar said. “We’re excited for the ones that can come, and, hopefully next year, numbers will be back up for 4-H.”

For the Carroll County Fair, which opened July 20, 4-H numbers are similar to 2019, fair board president Mike Lozier said.

“They went and got their projects hoping and anticipating their fair to happen this year. They knew that if it didn’t happen, they still had an avenue to sell the project. In my eyes, there was limited risk,” he said.

In 2020, the fair canceled entirely, but still had a junior fair auction, using a mix of in person and online bidding. The sale brought in a total of nearly $200,000, for about 200 lots.

The Muskingum County Fair, which is set to begin Aug. 15, is seeing a slight dip in livestock project numbers, but Kreis expects to see them come back with time — and he knows the fair board made the decision they needed to make for 2020.

“Had we had a junior fair last year, it would have bankrupted us, ’cause we had no way to pay for it,” Kreis said.

Rentals

Even without having a junior fair, at some points, the fair was close to having to lay off staff, Kreis said. Paycheck Protection Program funds and county commissioner COVID-19 relief funds, as well as a few smaller events, like a weekly farmers market, helped the fair keep the bills paid. It was a tough year.

“The monthly bills do not stop, whether you’re having events or not … but we’re still here,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of support out there.”

Now, rentals are starting to pick up again. One of the fair’s main rental facilities is already rented out for almost every weekend.

Dunbar said most of the events the Trumbull County Fair rents to outside of fair season have come back for 2021 — plus some new ones. The Carroll County Fair doesn’t do a lot of off-season rentals.

Booking

Getting entertainment acts and concessionaires has not been difficult for the fair, but the board did have a harder time finding commercialized vendors and booths, since some of those companies also struggled last year and some don’t have the staff to man those booths right now, Dunbar said.

Lozier said while some concessionaires left after 2020, whether due to financial challenges or retirement, the fair has most of the concessionaires it usually would and is bringing in a few new ones, as well.

“If they could stand it financially, they’re still here,” he said.

The Muskingum County Fair has also had a fairly easy time getting events booked for this year, Kreis said. Tickets for the concert the fair has planned are selling well. Concessions and commercial vendors are back. Overall, the fair organizers said they think they’re in pretty good shape for 2021.

“Everything’s a full go,” Kreis said.

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Reporter Sarah Donaldson is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.

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