The annual convention of the Arizona Fair Association (AFA) reinforced the organization's political stature. At center stage of the meeting was the debut of "AFA After Dark," a night club-themed PAC Fundraiser featuring live music, open bar and checkbook-toting fair executives ready to party.
According to Karen Searle, President of the Arizona Fair Association and manager of both the Maricopa County Fair and the Pinal County Fair.
"It was a really good time, a chance for everybody at the convention to let their hair down," said Searle
The AFA Political Action Committee -a just-for-fairs PAC, in contrast to existing coalitions with like-minded agriculture industry entities - is only four years old. Prior to the convention, fundraising was a sporadic effort, usually some volunteers and phone calls, and not an institutionalized convention event.
AFA After Dark indicates that this association has passed a milestone. Although the money raised was only a few thousand dollars, it's role in AFA PAC support is established. "This will be an annual event," said Searle. "It will become a tradition, and we had a sponsorships that helped fund it. Politicians came to the fundraiser. It was a lot of fun."
The AFA Convention, which represents 17 fairs, attracted 135 attendees, a little higher total than last year's turnout. The organization is healthy and forward looking, a positive attitude resulting from an upbeat 2015 year and a collective realization that for its own well being and the organizations, communities and events they represent, the AFA has matured into an effective political force in the state.
"We've grown up," said Searle. "Twenty years ago, the AFA was only a social association, without any agenda. Now we've grown with our convention. We have great educational programs and it's not just a networking opportunity any more. The speakers we have are great and the meetings have a political ring. It's been an excellent experience. We have legislature champions, and that number continues to grow. We have grown and matured as an association, because the fairs have grown, and the AFA has become an amazing resource.
According to Searle, there is state funding for fairs "that hasn't changed, we have been able to maintain our funding."
The AFA remains strong in the Phoenix state house, a position that was hard won and under constant scrutiny. Searle said that the general fund for fairs has not been reduced for more than five years ago, and while prior to that time there were some cutbacks, most of those were eventually restored. "We've not lost our funding again, and we have managed to keep the funding at the levels we have had."
The government funding is mainly based on keeping fairs agriculturally based - "100 percent of the funding goes to the promotion of the agriculture, and that is specified in the general fund and fairs promote agriculture," said Searle. "Promoting agriculture is the mission of our fairs and regardless of political party, it seems the state has been very supportive of the agriculture industry in Arizona."
She added, "AFA actively lobbies to keep the funding every legislative session. Cutting it is always a concern, and yes, the political climate in Arizona leans to cutting spending. Our lobbying is always the topic now at the convention."
Just like how the actual fairs create an annual photo opportunity and chance for politicians to meet and greet constituents, the convention for those event organizers is an opportunity for politicians to interact with people they represent. According to Searle, "we invite many of our legislators to come to the convention and spend time with us. They understand the importance of fairs to this state's economy. This year we had the speaker of the state house of representatives, three other members of the house and one state senator. They come to listen to us, and they understand our struggle, and to let us know we have an ear in the state capital."
She added that four state government politicians came to the 2016 convention, which she said was average.
Like many fairs throughout the U.S., the cost of entertainment was much on the minds of Arizona fairs at their annual get together. In the state, most headline entertainers have long priced themselves out of the local fair talent buying market. "If you exclude the state fair, that is the only one who does the true national acts, the big shows," she said. "Our showcase at the convention focused on the much smaller level of entertainment, family entertainment, the grounds acts and local bands. The majority of fairs are looking to expand those areas, to add value to the fair. Local bands are quite popular, because they also bring in their own fan base."
In addition to Searle assuming the role of Past-President, the AFA officers inaugurated at the convention were President - Wanell Costello (Executive Director of the Arizona State Fair & Exposition); Vice President -Eric Wofford (Manager of the Yuma County Fair) 2nd Vice President - Tommy Davis (with Davis Amusements) Secretary -Karen Strongin (General Manager of the Cochise County Fair), and Treasurer, Michael Searle - (Executive Director of the Pinal County Fair and Karen Searle's husband).
Other than taking the next step in a political evolution, the highlight of the AFA convention was the success of the preceding fair season, which for this warm weather state is bifurcated - a Spring and a Fall fair. "Yes, 2015 was a good year for the Arizona fairs," said Searle "Weather was good, a few fairs weren't as spectacular, but in general, attendance was good, the carnival numbers were up, the food percentages were up."
In fact, the fair that might have had it worse was the Arizona State Fair, which was hampered but far from defeated by rain. "It was tough for the Arizona State Fair, they had six days of rain but in spite of those days, they had a good attendance and a fun event."
The optimism was reinforced by a continuing economic recovery in the Grand Canyon State. "The economy was better in 2015," she said. "Our livestock shows and auctions were up and hay is doing really well. When hay does well, that makes a big difference, farmers have more money, farmers were growing more, and when they make more that converts into more spending on kids events, competitions, and that helps the fairs. That looks like it will continue into 2016."
The combination of good weather and increased consumer confidence seemed most apparent in the food segment at fairs. "Food grosses were up for most Arizona fairs," said Searle. "This means that more people were coming to the fairs, and or that people were staying longer, buying two meals, lunch and dinner, that is a positive because it showed most fairs had more things for people do and enjoy."
Searle said in general that Arizona fairs were energized by their recent annual convention, with the overall feeling being "Optimistic - we are fun group!," she said, and that heading into 2016 she is most looking forward to "continued success for our fairs and associate members. "
Good & Bad
But are presidential election years good or bad for Arizona fairs? Apparently, both.
First the good: Presidential election years are accompanied by a plethora of local elections, which not only means the local politicians try to get face time with fairgoers, "the local parties buy booths for their candidates, for state, county and local offices, so booth sales do increase a little," said Searle.
And the bad? Media buying is more costly and problematic. "Air time prices increase because all the presidential candidates and others advertise on all the networks," she added. "There's more political ad spending every year. It can actually be very difficult, especially in someplace like Phoenix. Air time gets more expensive and less available for fairs to market themselves."