When more than 750 fair professionals - representing 39 New York county and local fairs - gathered for the 129th Annual New York State Association of Agricultural Fairs Convention at the Joseph A. Floreano Riverside Convention Center in Rochester - they had many reasons to feel positive about the 2017 fair season.
Some of those reasons were keynote speeches, such as "Tell me Somethin' Good!" by Clint Swindall and "Those Who Laugh, Last" by Juli Burney, "Fair Family Feud" a new interactive experience involving most of the convention delegates based on the famous Television game show, an array of breakout sessions and an auction that raised record amounts to fund scholarships.
Those reasons helped the fairs of the Empire State have a successful convention by most measures, but the real cause for an optimistic 2017 outlook were five million reasons that came from the Albany state house.
An official announcement of the New Agricultural Fairgrounds Infrastructure Improvement Program began the New York convention on a very high note. This new grant program totals $5 million positively impacting more that 50 local New York fairs - including the majority of the members of the New York State Association of Agricultural Fairs.
Under the new act, individual fairs and fairgrounds can receive upwards of $89,000 for improvement and renovation projects, including new construction. "These fairs are a part of New York's rich tradition and help showcase the pride and heritage of communities in every corner of this great state," said Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. "These investments will help these fairs attract more visitors, raise the profile of local vendors and businesses, and help spur economic growth across New York."
In an political environment where many state governments prefer austerity to stimulus spending, this new program - the first time in nearly a decade that the State's more than four dozen local fairs will receive critical infrastructure improvement funds - the news could not be more welcomed. "It's a huge boost," said Gary Newkirk, Ulster County Fair, New Paltz, who assumed the presidency of the New York State Association of Agricultural Fairs Convention.
"Our local county fairs have been a tradition for generations of families. Mom and Dad bring their kids to enjoy the fair as their mom and dad brought them years before. Most of the fairs in New York have been around for over 100 years, several over 175 years.
Unfortunately, with that comes aged infrastructure. This money will be like a breath of fresh air to allow our fairs to keep up this great tradition, continue to provide great entertainment, build family memories, and provide an economic impact to local communities."
According to a New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets press release, the $5 million will be distributed through a grant system: "The funding can be used to build, repair, replace, acquire, or install fairground buildings, facilities or equipment that are used to house or promote agriculture."
Upgrading these buildings will not only strengthen the agriculture programming at the annual fairs, but improve the year-round business of fairs. "The smaller fairs aren't able to keep up with competition from many different venues," said Newkirk. "We have some of the oldest continuing fairs in the country, and our facilities show their wear and tear. There's such a huge choice of entertainment, for fairs to be successful hosting events, and if you want to rent the fairgrounds for more events, obviously improving their buildings and infrastructure will help make those fairgrounds a more attractive option and this grant money should help both the fair and the year-round business."
"For years, many of the State's local fairs struggled to make the necessary improvements to stay up-to-date and attractive to visitors," said Richard A. Ball, State Agriculture Commissioner. "This funding will help mitigate those challenges and provide better opportunities to spotlight the State's diverse and exceptional agricultural community. I look forward to seeing how it enhances the local fairs across the State."
Newkirk noted that the government funding in a budget cutting era did not happen without a proactive association of fairs. "A few years ago, we hired professional lobbyists, and that has gone such a long way. Politicians have compassion for fairs and they also want to promote agriculture,. It's a been a multi-year effort."
Persistence and the gaining of knowledge of how the gears of government turn also paid off. "Sometimes the financial support can get diverted, which happened at the las minute last year,. Or it can be approved, but then sit for ever in the comptroller's office. But we were notified that it went through, and we are very excited. A lot of fairs need new roofs, and at the convention we are very involved in talking about the process getting the money to their fairs."
New York fairs had a very robust 2016, according to Newkirk. Not only did the New York State Fair have a record year, but the smaller fairs "had a strong year," he said. "The majority of fairs had a very strong year. Fairs are still a family tradition. Years ago, it was the entertainment for the year, but families have been divorced from agriculture for three or four generations. But when we do surveys of fairgoers, the livestock and animals are always among the top three reasons people come to fairs."
In addition to the new funding by the state, the other topic that was an important part of the convention were labor issues, including minimum wage increases and H2-B, "the midway companies and concessionaires are dealing with these issues, and it reflects on the fair."
The New York State Association of Agricultural Fairs does lend lobbying support for labor issues, which Newkirk admits can be an uphill legislative struggle. "Obviously, New York is a very labor friendly state. We've included labor and overtime issues in our lobbying. Some states recognize an exemption of overtime for fair workers, but New York does not, and payroll can be sky high."
Rising entertainment costs was also on the minds of fairgoers. Like fairs in many states, the price of big name headline entertainers and the accompanying stage productions has become too high. "You are seeing fairs adding another motorized event and dropping their big name acts. It's changing. There are a lot of casinos now, so it is tougher to pay the bigger acts and it seems the carnival companies draw as many people as the star. Entertainment at fairs is changing. They are changing their line ups from bigger acts, they are going for more local acts and adding motorized events."
In other convention news, the Trade Show featured 88 booths, and feature d Showcase Acts were: The One Man Band & Son presented by Artists and Attractions; The Martin Family Circus presented by Klein's Entertainment, Gord Bamford presented by Variety Attractions and The Great Dubois, presented by Fusion Talent Group.
The Association's "Hall of Fame" Award was presented to Russell Marquart, CFE of the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, and also past president of the association. New York State Showpeople's Association awards were presented to Jefferson Mayne of the Madison County Fair for "Fair Person of the Year"; Avery Wheelock for "Show Person of the Year" and Carmeron Ward, Wheelock Rides for "Workhorse of the Year".
In addition to Newkirk as President, other 2017 officers for the New York State Association of Agricultural Fairs Convention, included: First Vice President, Scott Christian, Essex County Fair, Westport, NY; Second Vice President, Nick Pelham, Steuben County Fair, Bath, NY; Third Vice President Jason Lawrence, Chenango County Fair, Norwich, NY; Treasurer, Melissa Beardslee, Delaware County Fair, Walton, NY and Russell Marquart, CFE, Executive Secretary, Erie County Fair, Hamburg, NY.