Attendance and spending increased last year at most of the 109 member fairs of the Pennsylvania Association of County Fairs. All the fairs were represented as this year's annual event. 1,665 attended, an increase over last year's gathering.
Another unmistakable piece of evidence of the well being of the Keystone State fairs is that the number trade show vendors jumped to 187, the largest ever array in the history of the event. "We're known for a good convention and most of our fairs had good years," Harry Ruffner, Executive Secretary/Treasurer. "We had vendors come from further away, from Georgia and California for our trade show this year."
He added, "most fairs had a very good year, we had good weather for most of the affair and the economy seems to be doing better."
In spite of all this positive energy, the 2015 momentum for Pennsylvania ground to a depressing halt by the time of the association's annual convention. Why the downbeat attitude, feelings of hopelessness and despair erasing the optimums usually found among fairs, especially after a year of a recovering economy and a season filled with sunny days and clear nights?
The Pennsylvania State Government is locked into the all too familiar stalemate between a Governor from one party (Democrat) and a legislative whose majority is from an opposition party (Republican).
Held hostage by this inaction is the state's budget, and for fairs what is at stake is an annual expenditure of $3 million.
About five years ago, according to according to Harry Ruffner, Executive Secretary/Treasurer, this general fund was eliminated during budget cutbacks under a previous Governor, but lobbying by the Pennsylvania Association of County Fairs in conjunction with agriculture industry supporters led to a restoration of the funding.
Lobbying and a consistent advocacy presence in the state capital of Harrisburg by the fairs enabled the funding to remain in place.
But this current crisis is somewhat immune to traditional lobbying. With spending frozen and no budget in place, support for fairs is no longer an isolated issue. "Everyone is affected, not just fairs, so every item on the budget is in the same boat," said Ruffner.
"We have a very good lobbyist and supporters in the legislature from both sides of the aisle. Agriculture is the biggest industry in Pennsylvania. Both sides are agreeable about the importance of fairs."
The latest in the legislative soap opera is that the governor vetoed a submitted budget, and another round of negotiations is ongoing. At last year's convention, the then new Secretary of State for Pennsylvania addressed the gathering, and while the budget was a worry even then, this year the threat has become reality as a new fiscal year begins. The irony is that under a Republican Governor and Democratic-controlled legislature, fair funding seemed safe. Now in the second year of the branches of government being reversed, fair funding has fallen victim to a political clash amplified by the presidential election year - all 203 Pennsylvania General Assembly seats are up for election this year, and half of the 50 State Senate Seats. How the budget issue will play out in this unpredictable political year, especially in a state as "purple" as Pennsylvania is anybody's guess.
Ruffner said that stop gap measures to fund line items had already been taken, and that the state has "dipped into reserve funds" but now the inevitable can no longer be delayed. "Most of the fairs rely on this funding," said Harry.
"The mood at the convention was very pessimistic. Fairs are considering cancelling or cutting back on what they were planning to offer."
The Kempton County Fair - an annual event to begin June 16 has already been cancelled for what their website says "… was not an easy decision but because of a contractual uncertainty we had no choice… we are sorry for the decision we were forced to make."
So far the Kempton event was the only causality of the budgetary crisis, according to Ruffner, but if there is no resolution and/or some of the funding is not restored, more cancellations are likely. "Fairs run on a shoestring budget with a lot of volunteers," said Ruffner. "When you take away what little funding they get they simply can't have the fair."
The Pennsylvania Maple Festival in Meyersdale is the first official fair of 2016, set to begin April 2. Although no announcement has been made, Harry indicated that this fair was in doubt. "All the fairs are in the same boat and many fairs are considering cancelling their fair," he said.
As one could expect, waiting on an imperfect legislative process to unravel oppressively dominated the convention, but other issues affecting PA fairs were addressed. Workshops on new regulations on Animal Health, Games of Chance, and Trucking were presented, said Ruffner. In addition, the Avian Flu was a major concern, "the ban is technically in effect, but we are waiting to hear it will be lifted," he said. "We did not have our poultry shows last year. There's a threat of the disease being brought in by migratory birds, so that is what we are waiting for to pass."
Dr. Rick Rigsby, a famous motivational speaker, gave the keynote address at the convention.
The rising cost of entertainment was also a perennial topic. Most Pennsylvania fairs have already been priced out of this national headline talent buying market, "you are seeing more demolition derbies, and when you get into eastern Pennsylvania, there are more music festivals which is more competition," said Ruffner.
Ruffner pointed out that there were more applications this year for the 40 entertainment slots featured in the various showcases at the convention, which includes the awards banquet. More regional music - local bands with local followings - have become more popular among Pennsylvania fair talent buyers - "there's more grounds acts to choose from too, and they are keeping all their prices reasonable," he said. "We are seeing more jugglers, magicians, animal acts and fairs seem to be adding those acts to their fairs."