There’s nothing like a new facility to boost a fair. Debuting at the 2018 was a comprehensive makeover to one of the most historic facilities at the New Jersey State Fair, the Richards Building. The building is central to both the annual Garden State celebration and the year-round use of the fairgrounds. The project included a community-centric fundraising effort that began in 2015, and local media following for the various stages of development.
The renovation include adding 2,000 square feet – resulting in a 12,000-square-foot building, larger windows, an energy-saving LED lighting system, new lights, ventilation, drainage and public address system were installed. The building opened in 1976 and the overhaul was estimated to cost in the range of $465,000. In addition, the building was painted like a traditional red barn ben, further enhancing the agriculture and old fashioned nature of the fair.
“The renovation has done a number of different things for the fair,” said Gary Larson, Manager, Sussex County Fairgrounds/New Jersey State Fair & Sussex County Farm & Horse Show. “First of all, it really needed the renovation and the fact we’ve been able to complete it in time for this year’s fair has been great, because it really has been an extended project. It is brighter and that’s better for the exhibits and it’s so much more comfortable, we have more exhaust fans and cooling, and it is very energy efficient, ”
The upgrade project did not mean any additional exhibits for the fair, but a more inviting environment for several key-attractions, including the Sussex County Art Show; Photography in Sussex County Photography Show; Honey Show & Exhibits including live bee demo by Sussex County Beekeepers; Grange Exhibits; Fair History Committee Exhibits; Creative Arts for Home and Hobby, including canning, baking, crafts and demonstrations.
In addition to being an important showcase at the annual fair, the renovated and expanded Richards Building is also a sustainable business model. “We do 162 events throughout the year, and the new building will help with different festivals, such as the Irish American Festival. We do year-round social functions, we had 90 weddings last year. The fairgrounds is a 12-month a year business. The enhanced renovations, which gives us more electrical and better lighting, will help bring in the different groups for our year-round business.”
New Jersey may have metropolitan portions of the state, but the New Jersey State Fair celebrates both the traditions of agricultural fairs of past eras, and also boosts the contemporary Garden State agricultural industry. “We are New Jersey’s agricultural fair,” he said. “We bring in all farm animals, the sheep and the rabbits as well as all our fruits and vegetables. Agriculture is still a very strong industry in Sussex County. Participation has been steady and the agriculture industry has been very strong.”
The agricultural and community confluence of the fair was evident at the food sales, which showcased about 50 vendors. While typical fair cuisine is certainly present, food sales feature locally grown products as well as a host of volunteer, nonprofit organizations who use the community tradition of the fair for their own individual fundraising efforts. “We have a history of food at the fair being a mixture of healthy food and not so healthy food.”
Some of the popular food items at the 2018 New Jersey State Fair included a Jamaican Food stand, and The Butcher Boys, which sold a selection of grilled carnivore delights including steak sandwiches, gyros and a Cone-u-copia – which is a cone filled with beef, shrimp or chicken.
“There is a combination of fair foods and a trend to eat more healthy, so we have more healthy choices than other fairs,” said Larson. “Our nonprofits are the highlight of our food offerings every year. The Branchville Rotary Club serves roast beef and turkey sandwiches, The Kiwanis makes hamburgers and a great pulled-pork sandwich and the boy scouts make a phenomenal taco salad, very tasty. They make the fair special, and they draw in people and they also benefit from the large crowds. They are all volunteers and the money goes back to the community. They also highlight the community and the agricultural participation in our area.”
Attendance at the New Jersey State Fair hovered around 125,000, which is the average attendance for the fair. Fair policy prohibits releasing exact attendance or revenue figures, but according to Larson, attendance was “slightly below” average, with weather and the vagaries of weather reporting. “Weather was a major factor, between heat and humidity and intermittent rain,” he said. “The weather forecasts were incorrect. They report there’s a 30 percent rain, but they never report that means a 70 percent chance of no rain. We had a few days were it was cloudy and rainy but cleared up, but the weather report had already said rain but the crowds still stayed away. The timing of the rain was not in our favor either, we had rain opening Friday and the final Saturday, which are the big draw days for us.”
Even with less than cooperative Mother Nature, New Jersey itself – long considered one of the states were the great recession lingered longest – saw a noticeable economic upswing improving the 2018 event. One major indicator was “sponsorships were way up.”
He said that even with the dip in attendance. “People that were here were spending money. Personally, the economy seems in a much better place than last year. Our food sales and commercials vendors were up.”
In addition to a makeover to its Richards Building, the fair revamped its marketing campaign by widening its advertising reach and intensifying its social media presence. This year’s tagline was “There’s Always Something Happening at the Fair,” echoing the abundance of family activities, ranging from agricultural exhibits to rides and entertainment, which included the ever popular Demolition Derby, the only grandstand sellout of the 2018 fair, as well as the return of the Monster Truck Show. “We advertised in our regular marketing avenues, billboards, paper and radio ads, but we advertised in Pennsylvania and New York State as well as throughout New Jersey,” he said.
He added, “We enhanced our social media footprint.”
This enhancement encompassed platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. Two key aspects for the fair was keeping it in house and emphasizing interactivity with the fairgoer. “We now have people on staff who are well versed in the social media world. We focused on the social media responses, responding to comments and questions we received and putting updates out there constantly and boosting things with advertising when they needed it.”
Whether new or old media or how far the market reach for 2018 was, the tie-in was always the “There’s Always Something Happening at the Fair,” tagline. We are a mixture of things of for our guest to come and do, from agricultural exhibits, to different crafts and lots of stuff that highlights the best of Sussex County and New Jersey.”
One of the highlights of every New Jersey State Fair is its world renowned equestrian events. Technically, the fair is also known as the Sussex County Horse Show – in fact, the event began as the Sussex County Farm & Horse Show in 1923. “It is a world class show that has an international following,” said Larson. “We added a trail series event that was a benefit for local veterans groups and its used raced six-hitch horses, and we had a western style race.”
Reithoffer Shows provided the fair’s midway, which featured 30 rides, with the most popular rides this year being the Super Himalaya and Century Wheel. The ride mix was similar to 2017, according to Larson, with the new addition of an Air Race.”
In spite of a little more than nominal attendance dip, the 2018 New Jersey State Fair was a success. “Our name is a misnomer, we receive no money from the state. We were able to highlight nonprofits, and the Richards Building helped us a great deal. The main component of our mission is to be family-friendly event coupled with meaningful programs. This year’s fair exceeded everything we had planned for the visitors. The weather was a factor, but this a community effort to run and we succeeded in a big way with our volunteer base.”