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Iowa Fair Meeting Highlights Security & New Ideas

2/19/2016

By Timothy Herrick

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What are the precautions and procedures to follow if an outbreak of massive gun violence comes to your far? 

This sobering and tragic reality of contemporary American life took center stage as the opening seminar for the Conference and Annual Meeting of the Association of Iowa Fairs - "Active Shooter Awareness" - presented by David Johnston, who heads  the Iowa Homeland Security & Emergency Management Division. 

Packed Session
According to said Tom Barnes, Executive Director of the Association of Iowa Fairs and Executive Secretary of the Mighty Howard County Fair in Cresskill,  the seminar and talk was one of the most crowded in the history the yearly convention.

"I've never seen a session so crowded, it was full," said Barnes. "There have been so many incidents that fairs are worried. It's unlikely that anything would happen at a county fair, but it can just be an angry individual.  A county fair is a big event in an area, security is always a concern."

The topical seminar and workshop might have been well-attended, but is unclear what the immediate response, especially in terms of more restrictive fair regulations, will be. 

Firearms are common in Iowa, which also has a Concealed Carry Permit laws, but this does not prohibit fairs from banning guns at fairs.  "It is standard practice at most county fairgrounds to ban guns and weapons, and we have large signs and it is enforced," said Barnes. "The  seminar mostly raised awareness about the issue. I do not foresee a sweeping policy change.  But fairs are going to be more diligent, and have security watching what people are doing, how they are conducting themselves, searching more hand bags."  

Rising Costs
The annual get together of the Iowa Fair industry attracted representatives from the 106 fairs in Iowa and of the 155 associate members. Final attendance tally for the Conference indicated 1,447 people registered for the event.

The soaring cost of entertainment has become the top-of-mind issue for most of the Hawkeye State's county fairs. 

"Entertainment is too expensive, and fairs are more conservative about spending on those production costs down," said Barnes. "There was a lot of talk about how to keep that dollar down, for the production costs. There is a lot of good entertainment that doesn't have as much overhead and costs involved with booking." 

Another highlight of the convention was the ongoing governmental support of fairs, an exception to what seems to be the near nation-wide rule of governors and legislative bodies slashing funding for already cash strapped local fairs. "We have a really good relationship with our state legislators," said Barnes. "Fairs received just over $10,000 per fair as seed money, and they budget for it every year. We are a well respected lobby in the state government, we host a legislative breakfast every year. We have continued that relationship, and every fair invites their local senator and others to the annual fair." 

If anything, the annual Iowa Fair convention confirmed the state-wide commitment by fairs to "carry through on our participating in government and our lobbying."  

Upbeat Mood
The mood in Iowa is upbeat as they ended one fair season and began another. "The pride is evident among our fairs," said Barnes. "It charges me up to see everybody every summer, people on the fairgrounds."

He said a major factor encouraging this optimism is that Iowa fairs are getting younger both outside and in. "We are seeing more younger fairgoers, but we are also seeing younger people on the fair boards," he said. "I heard many fairs talking about their younger members, how they are working with entertainment, making their fairs more relevant." 

While there's still a lot of gray in Iowa fair sector - the stereotypical local fair board member is still a retired farmer - Barnes pointed out that finally, "we are seeing the median age of board members getting younger, not older. There are more young people involved with fairs and farming."

While the 2016 outlook for Iowa fairs is generally positive, the "farming economy is going to be tough," said Barnes. "Fairs are going to have be smarter, because there are bigger challenges for the fair as the Agricultural economy slightly softens.'

But even with this austere prediction, the younger generation seems to be bringing hope to the convergence of farming and fair organization.  "You are slowly seeing more involvement by twenty and thirty somethings in the fair," he said. "There seems to be an influx of kids returning to Iowa and to agriculture. They are making  agriculture more cost effective. They are doing  farming more efficiently, raising more crops in the same amount of land ,and in less time. You are seeing new efficiencies created by the younger farmer, and that is giving both the industry and the farms a new life."

At the fair level, the millennial approach to agriculture is apparent. "In the exhibits and specific classes, you are seeing the impact of the new farmers, the land efficiencies."
 
He added, "there is a positive energy in the fairs in Iowa. The fairs are doing well, and we are seeing a lot of younger faces. They are sorely needed. They are bringing a new enthusiasm, it's really neat to see and to listen to their new ideas. The old guard is very receptive. You are seeing a new focus on family activities, and multi-generational entertainment, because these are young parents we are talking about too. You are seeing it from the backing to the crafts, to the selfies and photographs. They are adding things to the fairs that we used to think of as non-typical fair activities, but they are drawing in new customers." 

New Facilities 
Barnes added that this rejuvenation of the agricultural industry and the fairs by the millennials is being seen in new investments.  Many fairs are reinvesting in their facilities, including several making "quite an investment" in new Agricultural Centers on the fairgrounds.

 "We are seeing more investment in that direction," he said. " In the larger communities, there's an influx of multi-ethnic populations, and many do not understand the importance of farming.  So there's a movement to have them better understanding the role of farming."

One sign of this trend towards upgrading facilities was that Barnes moderated a well-attended panel discussion at the convention, 'Capital Improvements on Fairgrounds.'

This new commitment to the agricultural mission of fairs only begins with new and/or upgraded facilities and expanded agricultural programming.  The real impact is putting a fresh veneer on that timeless fair atmosphere.

 "What they are doing is seeing more young families, and doing things that young families can enjoy, as a family, parents with your kids," he said. "They are enjoying the fair as a family and fairs are tailoring their education and their entertainment to younger kids."

This year, fairs at the convention were more interested in booking petting zoos and other kids-oriented attractions. "Fairs are adding entertainment, in the grandstand as well as on the grounds that targets the small kids, like magicians and music for them," he said. "More fairs are expanding what they offer young families.

In additions, Barnes noted some of the new ideas at the fairs are texting contests, scavenger hunts and events that utilize QR Codes. 

State & County
The Iowa State Fair, one of the most high-profile  state fairs in the U.S., had a stellar year in 2015, with an attendance of 1,117,398,  up from 1,015,902 in 2014. That record turnout and ongoing success of this annual celebration of America's heartland was in large measure due to the strength of the infrastructure of the county and local fairs. "Everyone you talk to at the state fairs know they wouldn't be successful if they didn't have the feeder system of smaller fairs," he said. "We work hand in and hand, with district meetings and conferences to make sure that the big event is successful, and that their success helps us." 

He added,  "there is not one thing making Iowa fairs successful, it's our attitude that is making a big difference. We are seeing a resurgence in popularity of the county fairs, and that is making people looking forward to the state fair. It's the same Americana atmosphere."

Other conference news included "Fairman of the Year", which was presented to Richard Workman of the Van Buren County Fair in Keosauqua, and the "Leo Overland Memorial Showman of the Year", presented to Hendricks Sound Service of  Fairfield Iowa. 

Also honored were the 2015 inductees into the Association of Iowa Fairs' Hall of Fame, Ron & Mary Esther Pullin of Waterloo.

"Blue Ribbon Fair" awards were also presented at the annual Awards Banquet. 

The honorees included the Clay County Fair, Spencer; Kossuth County Fair, Algona; Jackson County Fair, Maquoketa; Shelby County Fair, Harlan; Polk County 4-H/FFA Fair, Des Moines and Cedar County Fair, Tipton. This award is present to 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. 

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