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PA Fairs Fight Funding Cuts & Recommit to Agriculture

2/22/2017

By Timothy Herrick

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Last year's summer heatwave and rainy weekends took a toll on Keystone State fairs, but when the Pennsylvania fair industry gathered in January they found an expanded trade show floor and  a well-organized association ready to confront critical problems concerning the longevity of their fairs, especially damaging changes to a key state fair funding law recently proposed in the Pennsylvania State legislature.

The Pennsylvania State Association of County Fairs represents 109 affairs, and at their annual mid-January convention 1,665 fair professionals attended, according to Harry Reffner, Secretary/Treasure, who said the attendance was about the same as at last year's meeting. The state's fair industry was coming off a sometimes difficult year in 2016 but never-the-less are positive things will improve in 2017. 

"Weather had a big factor for those that had problems" he said. "Pennsylvania is slowly coming out of the recession, and there are other places that are vying for the entertainment dollar that makes it more difficult to compete."

He added that "the convention was very productive" and overall, fair members "are optimistic that 2017 will be a better year."

Trade Show Grows
Some of that optimism can be attributed to the growth of interest in the fair sector by an array of vendors seeing an opportunity. There were 187 trade show booths, an increase of about 10 percent, said Reffner. The Entertainment Showcase was expanded to 19 acts, "we got a lot of high quality acts, so we decided to increase the amount of the acts we see, but cut the time of their performance," he said. 

While regional music acts had a strong presence, as both vendors and showcase participants, there were more ground acts present this year. "There is more interest in local entertainment, we had music, magicians, hypnotists and grounds acts," he said. "Fairs seem to be looking to expand that area of the fair, picking up more local entertainment."

An entertainment highlight of the convention was a performance at the Annual Banquet of the Pennsylvania State Association of County Fairs by Jo Dee Messina, a Grammy Award Nominee whose had nine number one hits on the Country Music Charts.

The increase in entertainers as well as other trade show vendors has been a steady trend for Pennsylvania fairs. "Our reputation keeps growing, and people, entertainers and business, are becoming more aware of our convention and fairs. We are seeing more people who want to participate and hearing from them throughout the year wanting to participate in the convention. We are getting more people not just from Pennsylvania, but New York and Ohio."

Fighting Cutbacks
The political situation concerning fairs in Pennsylvania was a much on the minds of attendees. Unlike many states that are cutting back fair funding, Pennsylvania may not be drastically slashing funding, but there is a legislative move to reapportion the funding.  The proposed new formula for determining the funds may mean some fairs will no longer receive their support. Pennsylvania has a diverse range of smaller fairs, including small fairgrounds, fairs that lease space and even old fashioned Grange Fairs, which are essentially tented fairs with little to no buildings on the fairgrounds. 

State funding provided supplemental support for both operations and capital improvements, but the new proposed Fair Fund Act restricts that support to only capital improvements, essentially upkeep and improvements to facilities and infrastructure.

This could hurt the dozens of smaller fairs that either do not own their fairgrounds or do not have an abundance of buildings or other facilities. These fairs rely on the operational support by the state government, support that could be eliminated if the new act is signed into law. "It could be very detrimental to the smaller fairs," said Reffner. We are in the process of looking over the proposed changes and are working with our legislators." 

Zachary K. Gihorski, Fair Coordinator with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Bureau of Market Development, conducted a round table discussion on the Fair Fund Act, although Reffner emphasized that while parts of the act will potentially hurt some fairs, the bill is still in a preliminary stage.
Reffner pointed out the association has strengthened its lobbying efforts "for the past several years, and we are increasing the awareness of fairs with the state house and senate." 

Farm Commitment
Much of the support - and the awareness - has come from the association member fairs' commitment to agriculture. "We get strong support from the department of agriculture and from Governor Wolfe (Tom Wolfe, Governor of Pennsylvania). We have stronger representation and support. Agriculture is the number one industry in Pennsylvania and fairs are an important part of agriculture."

The commitment to agriculture by the association was apparent at the annual conventions, with a fresh approach to some perennial topics, such as If a Livestock Disease Outbreak Happens at the Fair - Are You Ready?. A real nuts-and-bolts seminar, the discussion all aspects of handling an outbreak, from publicity and dealing with news media to who should be in charge and how to handle with the diseased animals. "Fairs are very aware the potential problems with an outbreak," he said. "Last year the avian ban was lifted, and we've had swine flu outbreaks. It was very well attended." 

Another seminar on Ag Media Communication, presented by Kirby Dygert, explored "how to bridge the gap between the non-ag community.  He also presented "Two Organizations With A Common Goal, Same Mission: Working With Livestock Associations," which encouraged fair organizers to search for opportunities to "to work with livestock associations whether they are youth associations such are the National Junior Swine Association or adult associations such as the New York Beef Producers. No matter if they are national or local organizations; the joint efforts of the two combined always help to increase the attendance at your shows and help promote the industry as a whole.," according to the convention program."

Why Think Ag. presented by Jean Lonie, Director of Student Recruitment and Activities, Pennsylvania State University, was even  more directly aligned with the ag mission of the Pennsylvania State Association of County Fairs - looking at how fairs can use "agriculture in promoting your fair and connecting the community to Pennsylvania's number one industry… your fair can be a key part of the story in why agriculture matters- and agriculture can be a great way to engage and attract more visitors.

"Our top priority and primary purpose is to promote agriculture, and we are finding new ways to relate agriculture to fairgoers," he  said. "One of the top things people like to see at the fair are live animals, whether it's showing how cows are milked or chickens are hatched. It's important for people to know where their food is coming from and it's remarkable how people love the education exhibits at the fairs." 

The annual convention of the Pennsylvania State Association of County Fairs also saw the swearing in of President David Hallstrom, Board Director, of the Clearfield Fair & Park, and as Vice President, Dr. Sally Nolt, Secretary of the Elizabethtown Fair. Fair of the Year Awards were given to: Zone 1 - Clearfield County Fair; Zone 2 - Kiwanis Wyoming County Fair; Zone 3 - West Alexander Fair; and Zone 4 - Delaware Valley A Day Fair.

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