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Facility & Fairground Upgrades Highlight Upcoming Season for Iowa Fairs

3/31/2017

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of

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The outlook for 2017 is upbeat for Iowa Fairs as a wave of upgrades to fairgrounds are planned.  The state of Iowa grants its local and county fairs an annual $10,000 for capital improvements for facilities that promote agriculture, according to Tom Barnes, Executive Director of the Association of Iowa Fairs and Executive Secretary of the Mighty Howard County Fair in Cresskill. 

While that figure might seem insufficient for a major fairground upgrade in and of itself, many fairs have carried over this annual allotment  thus accumulating a more significant sum and/or through fundraising have been able to match and augment the amount. Barnes said that the vast majority of Iowa fairs have been or will be investing in their facilities. "The funding has been stable," said Barnes. "We have strong supPhoto By port in the legislature. Most fairs will be investing in their facilities for this upcoming season, they'll have nicer community buildings or new 4-H exhibit buildings. Fairs are investing in the type of facility this year."

Upgrade Promotions
Barnes noted that most Iowa fairs "had a good year last year. There were some rainy days in July that hurt some fairs, but overall attendance was pretty strong and slightly up for most fairs."  A positive 2016 has led to more financial confidence and Barnes anticipates this upgrade movement will bolster the 2017 season. "So many of the facilities are old, they're dust traps. New facilities improve the overall fair atmosphere, and makes it a nicer experience for people who come to the fair."
 
The facilities are also related to agriculture and this will also further the fair's main agricultural mission. "A lot of fairs are jumping up and down that we have a new Ag Center or New Learning Center," he said. "Agriculture education is what the fairs want to promote, that is essential to what they are and the new facilities will be something they can market."

As a genuine America Heartland state, Iowa has one of the largest agricultural economies in the country. What might seem unlikely though is that many newcomers - especially millennials and new immigrants - are coming to Iowa and have little if any connection to the state's farming traditions. 

"Bigger communities, like Ames or Des Moines are seeing a lot of millennials moving in," he said. "We are seeing an influx of immigrants who are also coming to the Midwest and making a new life here."

He added that both population segments "do not know about agricultural production or where food comes from, and they are coming to fairs and learning about agricultural, it is a big draw."

Targeting Millennials
In fact, Iowa fairs are "targeting millennials" for both fair attendance and volunteering for the actual event. "It's really had to do," he continued. "It is hard to understand this generation, and millennials seem fickle. We get them involved as much as we can but everybody is so busy these days and the usual places we look, like church groups and Lions Clubs, are not really attracting millennials either."

In 2016, Iowa Fairs "had a pretty strong attendance and it was even up for many fairs. There were a few rainy days in July but it was basically a typical summer," he said. 
 
Consumer economic attitudes- perhaps more intertwined with the health of the agricultural industry than other states - Barnes described as cautiously optimistic. "The markets are decent, although it is difficult. The base of the customers for fairs are supporting the fairs, and it is still a mini-vacation for people in the industry to go to the fairs." 

The Association of Iowa Fairs represents 106 fairs (Barnes said that 105 received fairgrounds funding from the state) - as well as 158 associate members - and the Association of Iowa Fairs Annual Convention & Meeting had an attendance of 1,378, which he said was a slight dip compared to last year. The convention does not feature the typical exhibition floor found at most conferences, but a courtyard area that had 35 tables but a total of 110 vendors, with much of the promoting taking place in adjacent rooms and suites. 

Free Entertainment 
Barnes said the fairs were mostly looking for cost-effective entertainment, with an increase in ground and strolling acts and an uptick in motor sports. "Most fairs can no longer afford the big grandstand acts, so they are looking for demolition derbies and regional musicians. They are also expanding their free entertainment and cutting back on name entertainment because of the cost."

Three new rodeos were also present and in general, this year showed an uptick of entertainment from out-of-state. "The new stuff we were seeing were mostly from other states," said Barnes. "Maybe their states have become saturated, or maybe they know Iowa fairs are increasing their free entertainment." 

At the annual convention of the Iowa Association of Fairs, workshops included: Animal Rights & Activists;  Alcohol at the Fair - What You Need To Know; Capital Improvements on Fairgrounds;  All Things Livestock;  Keep Iowa Beautiful Programs  for Fairs; State Fair Queen Contest and Iowa Tourism & County Fairs.

 In addition, a seminar on Human Trafficking Training was held, which included presentations by Celine Villongco, Human Trafficking Coordinator with the Office of the Attorney General of Iowa, and Vanessa Miller, L.E. Instructor at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy.

Awards given at the convention included: Fairman of the Year - Bob Fox of the Mississippi Valley Fair in Davenport;  Leo Overland Memorial Showman of the Year -Horizon Talent Agency of Hopkins, Minn. 

Also honored at the Banquet were the 2016 inductees into the Association of Iowa Fairs' Hall of Fame, Shirley & Gene Newell of Long Grove (Mississippi Valley Fair) and Roger Ahrenholtz of Harlan (Shelby County Fair).

Blue Ribbon Fair awards were also presented at the Banquet. The honorees included the Plymouth County Fair, Le Mars; Franklin County Fair, Hampton; Mighty Howard County Fair, Cresco; Montgomery County Fair, Red Oak; Lucas County Fair, Chariton and Mississippi Valley Fair, Davenport.

According to a press release, The Blue Ribbon Fair award acknowledges "one fair in each of the six fair districts in Iowa each year. The fair must have shown progress in providing service to the 4-H and FFA programs in their community, plus show distinguished service to the community in both fair and non-fair areas."

At the annual conference, association directors elected to the association's Board included: Steve Voss of Sibley in Osceola County, Jon Baltes of Hampton in Franklin County, Rick Palmer of Manchester in Delaware County, Danny Olson of Red Oak in Montgomery County, Jo Reynolds of Indianola in Warren County and Randy Beckman of Sperry in Des Moines County. 

The 2017 officers of the Association Board will have Jim Sloan of Eldon serving as President, Tricia Rosendahl of Eagle Grove serving as 1st Vice President and Mark Drost of Tracy serving as 2nd Vice President. Iowa State Fair Board Directors were also elected during the State Agricultural Society meeting, held during the Conference -Dave Hoffman of Le Mars, Alan Brown of Hampton, Paul Vaassen of Dubuque, Gary Van Aernam of Exira, Jerry Parkin of Earlham and Gary McConnell of Bloomfield. The 2017 President of the Board is John Harms CFE of Monticello. Gary Slater is the Secretary/Manager of the Iowa State Fair.


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