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New Lobbying & Social Media Controversies Highlight NY Fair Convention

2/26/2016

By Timothy Herrick

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Confederate flag controversies do not only spring up below the Mason & Dixon line.
 
At the 128th Annual New York State Association of Agricultural Fairs Convention, a minor controversy was made to seem major thanks to our social media driven culture. In the summer, pictures of confederate flags at a few New York fairs went viral  on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The historic - but offensive to many - Southern Stars & Bars were not publically displayed at the events, but one or two vendors were selling them along with other Americana type items, such as belt buckles and caps. Fairgoers took pictures, the pictures went semi-viral on social media platforms and suddenly these diverse fairs were associated with racism.

According to Andy Imperati, general manager of the Duchess County Fair in Rhinebeck, and president of the association, only about four or five fairs had the offending flag, but the backlash far outweighed the instigating incidents.  "The confederate flags caused a social media firestorm," he said.

The internet exposure outcry, like many  online events, passed quickly enough, at the annual convention the once viral confederate flags at N.Y. fairs were heated topics of discussion, raising several complex and controversial issues. "The discussion was about do we handle those situations," said  Imperati.  "The controversy was caused by social media, and the fairs can address it. The flag is a part of American history, and you don't want to be confrontational with a vendor selling it."

To be clear, the vendors were not selling lines of racist or offensive items, or even a comprehensive selection of confederate and pro-slavery memorabilia. The New York State Fair Association of Agricultural Fairs issued no proclamation, policy or new set of guidelines concerning confederate flags, but the discussion was very beneficial. "It was really about how do we handle these sorts of controversies, what are the different ways," he said. "Fairs want to be prepared if it happens again to this year."

Imperati compared the situation to incidents involving PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), who have demonstrated at some fairs. The issue was how to counteract negative publicity. "These stories can appear above the fold, but with the era of social media, a minor incident or just a picture can cause an outcry," said Imperati.

How can fairs minimize the threat of a negative image or story spinning out of control, besmirching the image of a fair, a county or region, or even the long tradition of fairs in the Empire State? "Most fairs do not have a plan in a place, nor I don't think they should at this point, because each case be different in how it is dealt with. But the workshops gave fairs information and different ways it can be dealt with. The most important thing is to stay on top of your social media and deal with it as soon as possible, do not ignore it." 

Costly Entertainment
The 128th Annual New York State Association of Agricultural Fairs Convention  was held at the Joseph A. Floreano Riverside Convention Center in Rochester and attended by more than 800 individuals, including representatives from 42 fairs.   Much on the minds of meeting attendees was the perennial issue of rising entertainment costs, a national concern for fairs, but the problem has become especially acute for Empire State events. Not only have new venues and casinos proliferated in a state which is home to New York City, the largest media market in the world, but during the summer upstate counties now showcase more festivals then ever before, including  larger country music festivals. This competition has both driven up the already escalating headliner price tags but now more artists with audiences in the second most populous state in the nation are restricted by radius clauses.

"Entertainment has jut gotten more expensive for fairs," he said. "Fairs used to be the place to see country music, but now festivals in New York are getting that talent. I don't think fairs are doing away with headline entertainment all together, but they are cutting back on the nights, and adding tractor pulls and demolition derbies. With the savings they are putting in more local music acts, magicians and hypnotists, which are much more affordable and give you more bang for the buck."

But fairs are cognizant of how difficult it is to strike a balance in terms of affordable acts and acts that will draw in customers. Imperati cited an old fair adage "that only 10 percent of your attendees come to see the entertainment on the agenda," but the dilemma is that is that loss of 10 percent made up for with the savings of booking different entertainment. "Fairs face tough choices, but fairs are a tradition no matter what you have in your grandstands." 

Preventing Cuts
Last year, the most significant initiative undertaken by the association was an expansion of their lobbying efforts, implementing a comprehensive approach to advocacy by promoting fairs and the agricultural industry these annual events represent. The effort included creating a new position. Public Policy Officer, for the association. "We've never had a permanent presence in Albany (the capital of New York). "This change has really been very good. We are now known to all the politicians as an entity."

Imperati added that the Association has bolstered its relationship with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, which oversees the state's fair industry.

In addition, the  organization's new lobbying strategy prevented further cuts to funding,  allowing the fairs to win a fight to keep "premium" dollars, which are the awards county fairs give out to contest winners. 

While county fairs are throughout the state, downstate - meaning the densely populated and represented New York City metropolitan area - except for Long Island, county fairs are relatively scarce. "We've invited the downstate politicians to our fairs, and we've made huge inroads with representatives in the legislature."

Governor Andrew Cuomo has created a "Taste of N.Y." initiative, which promotes the state's agricultural products and has been a highly visible presence at the Great New York State Fair, and last year, "that was expanded to some of the county fairs, so we have that partnership."

New York is investing $60 million in upgrades, including a new Amphitheater, at the New York State Fairgrounds and for 2016, the state association will be "lobbying for fairground improvements for our county fairs. There is a positive atmosphere in Albany towards fairs, the Governor was to promote local economies and agriculture, and the best place to do that is at the county fairs. A lot of our fairgrounds need help. We are doing a better job at communicating to our representatives and what fairs are actually doing to benefit the economy."

He added, "our next step in public policy is to get those infrastructure improvements at our county fairs." 

H-2B Solidarity
Another pressing political issue in evidence at the annual convention was the H-2B crisis, "which is very worrisome to our fairs," he said. "Carnival workers are seasonal workers, doing work that Americans do not to do. It's hard work, you have to leave your home for months and months, and it is hard not to find those people."

The fairs themselves do not hire H-2B workers, but their midway providers do and at the convention, an informal campaign to contact Washington representatives and voice support for solving the H-2B issue was begun. "Fairs need carnivals, and if the carnival companies can't get those visas, they won't be able to give us the midway," said Imperati. "It really is a partnership with between the fair and the carnival company, and we decided we would show our support. I can't speak for every fair, but I do know that most of us are writing and calling our congressmen."  

Awards given out at the convention included the "Hall of Fame", presented to Past President Denny Lang, CFE of the Erie County Fair in Hamburg. The New York State Showpeoples Association awards were presented to Bob Simpson of the Jefferson County Fair for "Fair Person of the Year"; Rene' Piche,  of Jack's Fries for "Show Person of the Year" and Lisa Dean of Dean's Concessions for "Workhorse of the Year".

In addition to naming Imperati President, other offices changes included:  First Vice President, Gary Newkirk, CFE, of the Ulster County Fair in New Paltz;  Second Vice President, Scott Christian of the Essex County Fair in Westport; Third Vice President, Nick Pelham of the Steuben County Fair in Bath; Treasurer, Melissa Beardslee, Delaware County Fair.  Treasurer Joan Rowland of the Saratoga County Fair and Executive Secretary Norma Hamilton of the Schaghticoke Fair will be retiring in April.

All in all, New York Fairs are eagerly anticipating the upcoming season. "Last year was a very good year," said Imperati. "The economy has turned around a little bit, and people seem to have a little more to spend. The cost of fuel going down and continues to go down, and that has given a little extra jingle in peoples pockets. Things are much different, and a little more relaxed in spending, not as uptight as 2008, when things really went south." 


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