Pandemic hits fair event centers hard

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Barns at the Wayne County Fair.
While barns at the Wayne County Fair do get some use in the off-season, with other livestock shows, they’re quieter than during the fair. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Fair season hasn’t exactly followed the blueprint this year.

Due to the pandemic, and related health guidelines, most Ohio fairs have been limited to junior fairs only. In addition, between restrictions and concerns about mass gatherings in the spring and summer, many fairs lost out on revenue from off season rentals.

With only a few fairs left in the 2020 season, fair officials are hoping to come back strong next year, but if the pandemic is still ongoing next fair season, some fairs could struggle to survive.

The Lake County Fair was in the middle of constructing a new event center this spring when the pandemic hit, throwing a wrench into fund raising and slowing down interest in rentals.

“We had hoped to raise as much as $100,000 from the grassroots campaign,” said Robert Dawson, director of the Lake County Fair board. “That’s still ongoing, but it’s been quite a bit slower than we thought.”

Fund raising

Instead, the board has raised about $70,000 so far. The grassroots campaign isn’t the only thing the fair was counting on to fund the building. It also got a County Development Block Grant and a major donation from the county visitors bureau, and received a capital grant from the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

But several other major donations the board expected when it broke ground on the building, in December 2019, did not come through, as other organizations shifted funds to deal with the pandemic. Those included a $50,000 pledge, and the naming rights, which were expected to also be upward of $50,000. The board is still working on selling the naming rights.

The board is covering those fund raising losses with a loan.

Dawson believes the campaign was hit hard partly because there wasn’t a full fair this year. He would have expected to see some more donations from vendors and sponsors during the fair.

“But ’21 is a new year, so we’re not stopping when we get the occupancy permit,” Dawson added. “This is going to be ongoing.”

The building itself is almost complete. The board is currently waiting on final permits and approvals, and expects to get the occupancy permit by mid-October.

“Despite the pandemic, the building itself is pretty much on time and at budget,” Dawson said.

Canfield

The Canfield Fair also completed a new, year-round, multi-purpose building this year. The building was the first phase of a project that will also include other livestock buildings and infrastructure improvements. The fair launched a five-year capital campaign to pay for the project, in 2017.

The campaign is seeking a total of $4.5 million. It had received $2.1 million when the fair broke ground on phase one last year.

George Roman, of the Canfield Fair board, said the new building was ready to use by fair time this year. The fair plans to start on the next phase of construction for the project once it has enough funds. The second phase is expected to cost $1.4 million, fair officials told Farm and Dairy in 2019.

While the campaign is still receiving donations, it has slowed down during the pandemic, Roman said.

“Everybody’s just holding their breath for a little bit and seeing where everything goes,” he said. “We’re pleased with where we’ve gotten to. You always wish for a little bit more.”

Slower rentals

Like many fairs with event centers, the Lake County Fair board is planning to rent out the new center in the off season.

Board members originally planned to use rent money to cover utilities and maintenance for the building. Now, they are expecting rental revenue to go not only to utilities and maintenance, but also to loan payments.

“It’s going to have to be spread a lot thinner than we originally had planned for,” Dawson said.

Their first event is already scheduled — a wedding, for the end of October.

“It’s gonna be slow starting out, but weddings are one thing that we always thought we could probably rent to,” Dawson said.

Some types of events, like trade shows, would be very difficult to hold at the fairgrounds right now, Dawson said.

“This is the building that we expect to be around for 100 years,” Dawson said. “We consider this to be a difficult blip, but shorter-term, considering the life of the building.”

The Wayne County Fair also unveiled a new event center just last year. But Matt Martin, Wayne County Fair board manager, told Farm and Dairy over email that all but six of the 32 events booked for the fair’s event center this year have either been canceled or re-scheduled for 2021.

Fair officials told Farm and Dairy in 2019 the fair had taken out a 20-year loan to pay off the building, but hoped to pay it off sooner. Officials also said they were expecting the center to generate enough income from rentals to cover those payments. The fair did not respond by press time to requests for further comment.

Roman, however, said the Canfield Fair is already getting many calls from people interested in renting its new building for events. The fair is planning to use rental income to help cover building maintenance.

“We’re just climbing along at a reasonable pace,” Roman said. “We don’t want to get too far over our heads.”

The fair did take a major hit to fairground rentals in the spring, however, when many smaller shows that typically use the grounds had to cancel events. Once the state and the local health department set up guidelines, Roman said, the fair was able to start hosting other events, like fair food extravaganzas.

“We’re set back a little bit. We’ve had some events on the fairgrounds that have helped us generate some revenue,” Roman said. “But we’ve had to tighten our belts, like everyone else has.”

Other losses

The lack of rentals and fund raising isn’t the only thing affecting the fairs. Typically, fairs use revenue from senior fairs to help cover the costs of junior fairs. But, like many Ohio fairs, the Lake County Fair had a junior fair only this year.

“When you look at fairs, it’s the front end … that generates the money, the gate, the sponsorships, the midways, grandstands,” Dawson said. “There was none of that, zero.”

Ohio fairs that held junior fairs received $50,000 in COVID-19 relief from the state. Dawson said, in Lake County, some of that money went to support the junior fair, and the rest of it is being used to help cover other lost revenue.

“We’re probably approaching $350,000 in [revenue] loss,” Dawson said.

Future

That doesn’t mean the fair is $350,000 in the hole. The board cut some costs by not having a full fair. Board members are also expecting to make more income through their winter storage program, and hope to see some federal aid for fairs.

Roman said despite the challenges this year, Canfield Fair board members expect to have a full fair next year, as long as the pandemic doesn’t prevent it again.

“I think that we’re hopeful that there will be a vaccine and this will be behind us at some point early in the new year,” Dawson said. “If that’s the case, I think the fairs will come back stronger than ever.”

If not, some fairs could be in trouble.

“If we’re dealing with the pandemic issues next fair season, I think it’s going to be devastating,” Dawson said. “I don’t see how a lot of small fairs, or large fairs, can survive two years under these conditions.”

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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.

1 COMMENT

  1. Perry County had a full Fair with approximately 120,000 people through the gates 99% of the people no masks and not one case traced to the fair. Just before the Governor shut things down for everybody else.

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