A jump in utility costs and a drop in government funding caused consternation and provoked discussion at the 91st Annual Convention of the Ohio Fair Managers Association (OFMA), but an influx of youth and an upbeat 2015 fair season in the Buckeye State resulted in a very optimistic fair sector.
The fair tradition is alive and well in Ohio. The Ohio State Fair saw a 7.2 percent increase in attendance, , breaking for the third year in row the 12-day attendance record for the fair, including a record opening day. The stellar success of the Ohio State Fair had a positive ripple effect on the state's smaller fairs – 87 county fairs and seven independent fairs. "For the most part, Ohio had a good fair season in attendance," said Bob Buxton, President of the OFMA (his term begins with the convention, and he is also Fair Director of the Coshocton County Fair. "Most fairs didn't break records like the state fair, but they had good fairs.. Our fair had a downpour that hurt us, you can never make up that kind of loss. But most fairs had very good years and the mood at the convection was very optimistic."
Another sign of the positive attitude pervading members of the Ohio fair industry was that the convention also saw an uptick in attendance including more than 1,800 Senior Board Members and 1,500 Junior Fair Members. "There were more junior fair members attending this year compared to last year, and that means more young people are involved with fairs," said Buxton.
"That is very encouraging, they're the future. The mood at the convention was optimistic, due to the increase in youth interest and participation. There were more than 200 more junior members at this convention."
On the agricultural front, the big new news was that the Avian Flu annual address given by the Director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, David Daniels, reassured fairs that poultry will return to 2016 Ohio fairs. "Daniels was very confident that the poultry will be able to be shown at fairs in Ohio, said Buxton. "The crisis is over."
Ohio was one of more than a dozen states that prohibited the public exhibition of all forms of fowl due to an outbreak of H5N2 and H5N8, two strains of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza. More than 35 million birds died or were euthanized as a result of what officials called the largest avian influenza outbreak in U.S. history.
In his address, Daniels praised how county fairs and that 4-H contestants and other Junior fair members found "very creative works to make sure chickens were still part of the fair," said Buxton. "They really had the showmen instinct, where they used posters, and even a toy chicken for demonstrations. They came up with new ideas to make sure poultry was part of the fairs."
He pointed out that poultry contests were still part of the agricultural components of most county fairs, although the chickens worked through local Food Processing Plants and officials judged the carcasses.
"There weren't fewer but actually a little more people showing chickens at the fairs last year, despite the outbreak," Buxton said. "There was no decrease in fair attendance because poultry was not allowed to be exhibited at the fairs. It's an important of our industry here in Ohio and people were supportive."
Other highlights of the convention included the crowing of the 2016 Ohio Fairs Queen (Mary Buchler from Shelby County), an exhibition floor with 129 trade booths and an entertainment showcase featuring six bands which well received.
Jim Tressel, president of Youngstown University, spoke to the convention on the theme of "Make Things Happen."
In addition, the association's new officers which besides Buxton taking on the role of commander-and-chief, included Dan Bullen-First Vice-President (Greene County), and Rodney Arter-Second Vice President (Hartford Independent Fair), and Robert Dawson-Treasurer (Lake County).
Four members were inducted into the Ohio Fair Manager's Hall of Fame – Gary and Eric Bates (Bates Bros. Amusements), James Martin (Medina County), and Robert Bland (Carroll County).
Six fair directors received the Director's Award for "Innovation & Excellence for their progressive ideas and actions to improve and strengthen their fairs," Among this year's award recipients were the Jack McCoy family of Adams County, Joe Kovach of Brown County, Greg Simpson of Clermont County, Wayne Arnold of Fayette County and James M. Caldwell of Ross County.
The OFMA also recognized 47 "Outstanding Fair Supporters, " all of whom received plaques for their involvement in making Ohio's county fairs so successful. "These were all volunteers from the community, and without their kind of support, we really can't have the fairs we do," said Darrel Cubbison, immediate-past president of OFMA (his term concluded with the convention) and president of the Muskingum County fair.
Costs Increase Anxieties
A contentious issue of frustration for Ohio Fair managers has been an exorbitant increases in electrical bills. The frustration comes because gasoline prices have plummeted and Ohio, because of the expansion of Fracking, has become a leading natural gas supplier, and counter intuitively, electricity costs skyrocketed this year - a 20 percent or more increase from 2014 to 2015 for most fairs. "Fairs are being hammered by electrical costs. Fairs use a lot of electricity in one week, there's a demand cost," said Cubbison. "We are encouraged to use more generators because that's actually lower cost than that of the utility bill."
Another cost-related topic much discussed among OFMA attendees was the continuing decease in funding from governmental resources, due mainly to continuing budget cuts at the state and local levels. "Thirty years ago we used to get federal, state and local funding to help put on our fairs," said Cubbison. "The federal funding went away long ago, and now the state and county funding has dried up. Fairs have been told they have to make it on their own. There was some county funding for the fairs, but much of that was stopped last year. Some fairs are struggling. If there's any funding, it still comes from the county, but it's because the fairgrounds are important to those communities."
Although a major topic of discussion, no action was taken by the organization. "There's no more state funding, but we weren't able to do anything about that at this convention," said Cubbison.
Another issue confronting fairs nationwide also was top-of-mind for many convention attendees, the rising costs of headline entertainment. Most fairs face an extreme sellers market when it comes to talent buying, and smaller fairs who once relied on big-name entertainment bookings to draw in revenue producing crowds, now find themselves priced out the market.
"Top entertainers are getting so expensive now that is hard to get a big show line up at fairs," said Cubbison. "Fairs are very worried about this and many ideas were discussed at the convention.
Alternatives drawing fairgoers with these pricey headliners were discussed at the convection. Demolition Derbies - once, an affordable go-to grandstand entertainment - are no longer an economically feasible option. "It is very difficult to get junk cars, and the ones you can use cost too much," said Cubbison. "Some fairs are cancelling them, and now most can only have one night of demolition derbies. Most are going to have motocross with motorcycles, that seems to be more popular.
In spite of these challenges, the pervading upbeat attitude at this year's annual OFMA convention resulted in a positive, if realistic outlook. According to Cubbison, what fairs are most looking forward to this year is the "Challenge," he said.
"There is only 124 days to put on 95 fairs across the state of Ohio."
Buxton pointed out that the general consensus as the economy was on upswing in Ohio – a state who was hit hard by the recession of just a few years ago – a trend likely to continue through this year's fair season. "The economy was up last year, there was more consumer confidence," he said. "Unemployment was down, certainly compared to during the recession."
In addition, the looming presidential election in 2016 is anticipated as a boosting fair business, especially at the local level. Not that the national candidates are expected to make an photo-op opportunity of any of the dozens of Ohio events, but the benefit is from the reality of that old saying, all politics are local. "Election years are good years for fairs, with all the state, county and local offices up for grabs, all the candidates come to the fair. Fairs are a great place to meet the voters, it's free publicity," said Buxton. "They get more people to come to the fair and they do considerable amount of money while they're there."