"I think 2014 was an overall good year for the fair industry in Michigan," says Ric Crawford, CEO of the Shiawassee County Fair and new president of the Michigan Association of Fairs & Exhibitions.
Michigan was one of the states hit hardest by the economic downturn, but at the annual convention of the association, held January 8-10 and attended by 1,200 fair professionals, the attitude was notably more upbeat than it has been in years. "The state has had a come back, and we should have a pretty good fair season," said Crawford. "We have seen the economy improve."
Nearly 1,200 fair professionals attended the annual convention. The association has 85 fair members. Agriculture has become one of the growing segments of the Michigan economy, which has positive spill- over effect on all local fairs. "We continued to break records with live stock shows, and youth programs," he said.
Leading topics at the fair included state funding - the state government of Michigan eliminated most funding for fairs in 2009 but according to Crawford, the state will begin offering matching funds. "It should help the industry tremendously," said Crawford, "but we're still working on the details."
The state fairs - which include the Michigan State Fair and Upper Peninsula State Fair - were the events most impacted by the earlier funding elimination. The larger fairs cutback content, and the state fair in Detroit eventually ceased operations. For the most part, the smaller fairs welcomed the recent resurgence of the Upper Penninsula State Fair and the new state fair now run by a private organization, but there is some consternation. "Some fairs are worried they are taking business away from them," he said.
This apprehension among some county fairs is also due to the reluctance by the newly revamped state fairs to bring back state-wide livestock and other agricultural contests. Like in most states, those winning competitors at county and local fairs in Michigan would move on to the state fair level - smaller fairs in essence act as a feeder fairs for agricultural programming at the larger fairs, which also unifies the entire farming industry of the state. But according to Crawford, after the cutbacks, "they haven't brought those programs back at the large fairs, so some fairs are waiting to see what the intent of the state fairs will be."
The rising cost of entertainment was also a hot topic at the convention. "Fairs are now losing every time we do a concert," he said. "We are competing against casinos. It is harder and harder to find entertainment in the price range of small and mid-size fairs. We cannot keep our fairgoers with just the agricultural programs, or other entertainment, like demolition derbies."
One of the hottest topics among convention attendees - and like the increasing costs of entertainment, an issue with an that is impacting the industry on a national level - were new precautions all fairs must take due to the outbreak of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDv). The pork industry is growing in Michigan - it is 13th in the nation - and this deadly disease is disrupting pig farmers nationwide - at the fair level, new regulations include stipulations that all hogs who compete at the fair are not allowed to return back to the farm and thecompetition cannot last longer than three days - most fairs with an agricultural competitions run 5-7 days.
These restrictions severely impact the exhibition, competition and auction aspects of hogs at fairs in the state, impeding the growth of the state's pork industry and the role fairs have played in that growth. Compliance is mandatory, but "fairs are very worried about their hog programs this summer," he said.
The Association of Michigan State Fairs will hold a Spring Workshop, Crawford said, a first for the organization. Smaller than the convention, this meeting will feature roundtables more focused on the issues that emerged at the annual meeting.
In addition to Crawford taking the presidential chair, new officers for the association inducted at the annual convention included Vice President Steve Thelen - Saline Community Fair; Treasurer Jamie Skerbeck - Skerbeck Entertainment Group Inc.and Secretary Larry Bush Swartz Creek Hometown Days.
The annual convention also inaugurated the association's Hall of Fame Award. This annual commemoration recognizes 10 individuals who have worked to further goals and mission of Michigan's fairs and the association that represents them. Individuals must be involved in the fair industry for at least 20 years to be eligible for induction, they can come from all segments of the business, including fair management, state government, fair vendors and other associate members of the organization. The inaugural inductees receiving the 2015 Hall of Fame Award were: Henry Ebershoff, Lafayette Tent; Glenn Wade, Wade Shows; Barbra Kolm, Berrien Co Youth Fair; John O'Bryant, MDA Retiree; Fred Henningsen, St. Joe Co Fair; Bill Burns, Clare Co Fair; Agnes Shaw, Emmet Charlevoix Fair;Charles Kline, Midland Co Fair; Glenn Stock, Monroe Co Fair;and Al Slaggert, Mid-state Exposition.
Fairs & Farming Alive & Well in Ohio
The Ohio fair industry is unified behind the mission of keeping farming relevant to residents of the Buckeye State. "The local fairs add value to the Ohio Agricultural industry," said Darrel Cubbison, president of the Ohio Fair Managers Association, and president of the Muskingum County fair. Among the highlights of the 90th Annual Anniversary Ohio Fair Managers Convention, was a concerted effort by all fairs to emphasize agricultural education and promotion in the 2015 season.
"We are losing land for farming, but fairs are playing an important role in building awareness among people in Ohio about where their food comes from and the importance of farms and farmers to our state," said Cubbison. "The fairs in this state are still built very much around agriculture and the agricultural industry."
In fact, the educational aspect is both a mission and a draw for fairgoers. "People are more interested in where their food comes from than ever before. This has helped attendance at most fairs."
There are 95 fairs represented in the association. The convention, held January 8-11, had approximately 3,700 total attendees, including 1,257 Junior Fair, 550 fair associates, and 1,893 Fair officials, spouse and managers. The convention was Presented by Hopkins Food Service and Katie Stam Irk, 2009-Miss America 2009 was the Keynote address Speaker, which was sponsored by the Ohio Soybean Council.
At the event's General Session, Sarah Everhart was crowned the 2015 Ohio Fairs' Queen, and she will preside over the Ohio State Fair, July 29th to August 9th.
Ohio-based Midway providers, Bates Amusements, celebrated their 50th anniversary by hosting a hospitality suite and luncheon. The convention's theme was "Focus on the Future, and the two-day trade show had 122 vendors. David Daniels, Director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, awarded 12 Certificates of achievement to 12 Outstanding Fair Supporters
In addition to Cubbison, other officers (officers for the Ohio Fair Managers Association hold 3-year terms) inducted at the convention included: 1st Vice President: Robert Buxton, Coshocton County Fair; 2nd Vice President: Dan Bullen, Greene County Fair; Treasurer: Robert Dawson, Lake County andExecutive Director: Howard Call, CFE, Summit County Fair. The 2015 Ohio Fairs Hall of Fame inducted William "Bill Fulmer" of Ashland County Fair, Paul Oechsle of Van Wert County Fair, Keith Sheridan of Greene County Fair and Virgil Strickler, CFE of the Ohio State Fair; Also., 27 Ohio fairs received communications awards during the Awards Program Sunday Morning
"The fair industry is very much alive in Ohio," said Cubbison. He added that most fairs are over 100 years old - the fair he manages celebrated its 169th anniversary last year - there are 88 counties and 87 annual county fairs in Ohio (the other seven fair members of the association are independent fairs. "My wife and I attended 42 county fairs last year, and all are unique, and they are striving to bring great programs to the people."
Educating the public about the importance of agriculture to society - and the fact the food chain starts on the farm and not at the supermarket - is paramount to the programs presented by the small and mid-sized fairs in Ohio, but Cubbison emphasizes these current programs are actually embedded in the roots and traditions of Ohio Fairs. "In the 1800's, people were struggling to get food on their table and fiber in their diet. Fairs helped grow the Agricultural industry back then."
Similarly in the current era, "Fairs are educating people about who grows their vegetables and grains and who raises their livestock."
Industry members attending the annual Ohio Fair get-together seemed uniformly pleased with the 2014 season. "The year was overall good, the weather was cool and mostly dry," he said. In addition, with higher fuel costs and other factors contributed to a stay-cation benefit for regional fairs. "With the cost of gasoline in Ohio, people seem to stay close to home and do day trips," he added.
Ohio fairs are also concerned about competition for entertainment - both the acts and the consumer's disposable income - from the proliferation of casinos in their state. But Ohio Fairs are exploring a silver lining in this dark casino cloud impacting fairs nationwide. "There may be opportunities for partnering with casinos on harness racing at fairs," he said. "Some fairs are looking into this, and the casinos may actually provide a boost to their harness racing programs. With the casino's expertise in gaming, many fairs feel this partnership can be beneficial and feel positive about it."
Another controversial issue much discussed at the convention are looming changes to Federal 990 Tax Exempt Status regulations. "There are some changes coming to the reporting for nonprofits," said Cubbison. "Fair managers were concerned about getting their ducks in a row so they can keep their fair's non-taxable status."