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Economically Struggling Michigan Fairs Focus on Farming & Community Outreach

3/16/2016

By Timothy Herrick

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The Flint drinking water crisis was just hitting the news when the two-day annual convention of the Michigan Association of Fairs & Exhibitions took place. The story was only starting to unfold, so it was too early to assess the impact on Michigan fairs or even the Genesee County Fair, where Flint is the largest city and county seat. 

As everybody now knows, the incident that instigated the increased lead in the city's drinking water was a cost saving measure implemented by Michigan's Republican Governor, Rick Snyder, that switched the city's water supply to the Flint River, which increased the lead levels in the water. But has the Governor's budget slashing ways negatively impacted the state's 86 fairs?

Supportive Governor
Not this year, and according to Steve Thelan, the new president of the Michigan Association of Fairs & Exhibitions, and assistant treasurer with the Saline Community Fair. "We've been fortunate, the Governor has been one the most supportive of agriculture, he really believes in the agriculture industry and in fairs, and he attend fair.

The state has provided capital funding to fairs for "five years, and we have not received any indication there will be any cuts this year," said Thelan. "In addition, there is a state-sponsored $300,000 matching grant program, conducted through the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) and that  money will be divided up among about 20 fairs, whose grant proposals were accepted last year.

The state's economy remains stuck in the doldrums, but fair organizers are upbeat. We're  keeping our fairs robust in spite of the downturns," he said. "The industry is optimistic. The economy is not strong in Michigan, and last year  more people were taking "Stay-cations." If you have really good weather, most everyone was sharing the same situation. Most were fairs were even with last year, or up, and there were a few fairs that said they absolutely had their best year last year, or their best year in the last three or five years. Michigan fairs are in pretty shape." 

Anything Is Possible
The convention attracted 1,203, slightly higher attendance than in 2015. He added that the two state fairs - which include the Michigan State Fair and Upper Peninsula State Fair - had strong events last year. These two fairs had struggled for years, even went hiatus for a couple of summers, "but now they continue to grow." 

 In spite of a state still struggling economically, the annual convention of the Michigan fairs - with its optimistic theme, "Anything is Possible" - saw a state that despite continuing economic stagnation, has a healthy fair industry. "There's more volunteering of time, our live stock proceeds continue to rise, youth involvement in the fair and in selling their livestock," said Thelan. 

Agriculture has been one of the few bright spots in Michigan's economy and attention to that industry took center stage for much of the 3-day convention. Orion Samuelson, famed broadcaster of the Farm Report on WGN, and now co-host of This Week in AgriBusiness. "He is a long time Ag reporter," said Thelan. "Most everybody at the convention listened to his show.

Michigan had a poultry ban to due the outbreak of H5N2 and H5N8, two strains of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza. According to the Thelan, the state's veterinarian "declared the crisis over and we expect to have poultry at fairs this year. We were hit by the ban, but fairs did have some intriguing things at the fairs. We had made Styrofoam balls to look like eggs, and a lot more educational posters. There were some carcasses that were judged, and their products were still sold through their auctions. It was all positive, good things, and we had a lot more education."

The perennial concern among fairs are "concerned about the gate revenue, getting more people into the fair, and gaining more financial control of their fairs.

Community Outreach
 Michigan fairs are looking to grow their number of fairgoers by expanding in 2016 their community partnerships. "Fairs are looking to for new types of sponsors," said Thelan. "They are also strengthening their ties with the community, getting more school groups and doing more promotions, for admission and for rides, with schools and different organizations. That was a popular topic of discussion, how can we do more outreach and partner with more community groups to bring more people to the fair."

For most fairs, it's a prospect that is not as easy it as sounds. For example, most schools are not in session during the fair, so organizing class trips can be problematic. "It really is about growing ties with the community, identifying groups and creating a rapport with them. More fairs are doing this and we are exchanging ideas." 

He added, there's "a renewed focus on trying to get the community involved and looking at non-traditional groups, like soccer clubs and other groups popping up in various counties. It is not real costly, but it does require a more legwork and networking."

One such new outreach popular among Michigan fairs is targeting preschoolers. "Fairs are bringing in a pre-school, have a special operational time for the fair. The kids are brought on a field trip, fairs will have special program for them, and open up those rides that are only for young children. Fairs also will have discounts on food, or they'll bring a sack lunch and have a picnic. The hope is that the parents, family and friends will hear about the fair want to come back." 

The most popular workshop at the convention showcased social media. "The workshop focused on the mechanics of social media, and we were posting our convention on FB and other media platforms. Obviously, the older generation is not as comfortable with social media but we have young people there training us. We haven't done that near as much as we can as an association I suspect social media will grow among fairs in Michigan this year." 

Higher Costs
Entertainment costs, n national issue for fairs, had a particularly devastating impact on a struggling state like Michigan. The exorbitant fees now being charged and the soaring number of competing venues have reached a crisis point in the state, with many fairs drastically restructuring how entertainment is presented at their events. At the annual convention, fairs executives were both bemoaning the persistent dismal state of headline entertainment at county fairs and examine alternatives to big name acts.

"In our lifetimes, we have seen the county fair going from the only avenue for big name entertainment within a 60, even 120 mile radius to being the last stage promoters consider. There are 20, 30 new casinos and entertainment stages and they now control the market. Michigan fairs can no longer compete with big name entertainment."

Thelan said what he is looking forward to the most in 2016, "is seeing the plans put into action that were discussed at the convention by our fairs. It should be a positive year."

The 2016 edition of the annual Michigan Association of Fairs & Exhibitions convention also saw the second year of the association's Hall of Fame. This year's inductees included: Diane Brazier, Emmett Charlevoix County Fair;  Delmont Chapman, Monroe County Fair; Walter Guthrie, Bay County Fair;  Wayne & Pat Loose, Branch County Fair; Fred Morris, Lake Odessa Fair; Wayne Nichols, Hillsdale County Fair; Roger Phelps, Saline Community Fair; Thomas Valliere, Midland County Fair; Ronald Wenger, Kent County Fair; Stan Jordan, Ingham County Fair; and Sherman & Joy Schmidt, Schmidt Amusements. The 2016 Heritage Awards recipients were Beverly Hinkley, Emmett Charlevoix County Fair; Marcia Raffler Lake Odessa Fair; Earl Heller. Chelsea Community Fair; Claudia Crim, Chippewa County Fair; and Donna Woltyysiak; St Clair County 4-H & Youth Fair. 

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