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Change is Good: Ohio Fair Managers Convention Looks Forward to Season Ahead
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Forward looking, self-empowered and reinvigorated by a robust 2023, the annual convention of the Ohio Fair Managers Association (OFMA) boldly declared its theme: Change Is Good. The membership, which includes 87 county fairs and seven independent fairs, were all represented with 1,852 county fair officials and spouses, 545 fair professionals and 1,150 youth participants.  

Paul Harris of the Geauga County fair and OFMA President, who selected the theme, said “If we could just find a way to control the weather, we would have it made. Nonetheless, our great Ohio fairs continue to clear every hurdle and celebrate the successes'. This year's theme is “Change” as hard as it can be, we all have to be able to accept change. It is often hard and sometimes doesn't work, but we don't know unless we try. We must continue to look at new ideas for success in this ever-changing industry and world.”

In addition to the robust fair turnout, the meeting included 497 exhibitors, squeezed into 139 Tradeshow spaces. The organization marked the sixth consecutive year of selling out all available exhibition space. The convention also featured 130 speakers and presenters. “It was by far the largest convention in the history of the OFMA,” said Howard Call, Executive Director, OFMA. “The attitude among the attendees was tremendous. Attendance at the 130 workshops or meetings was an all-time high, networking among the Fairs from the largest to the smallest was very evident in these workshops and meetings.”

Grant Writing Workshops

"Ready for Action” by Lori Firsdon, Founder & Owner, Forte Organizers; “The Critical Elements of Property & Casualty Insurance Coverage & Risk Management” presented by Burnham Flower Team; “Competitive Exhibits, the Unsung Stars of Your Fair,” presented by Jessica McLaughlin of Spokane Co. Washington Interstate Fair and an IAFE speaker; were all presentation topics and motivational speaker Mark Mayfield gave the convention's Keynote Address, “Morph”, further reinforcing the Change is Good Theme.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture offered the most pragmatic workshops of the convention's educational programming, which included updates on rules and regulations for Fair Operations, Animal Exhibits and Animal Show Showing.  Perhaps the most critical workshop presented by the Ag. Dept. covered new grants now available for Ohio Fairs, attended by more than 185. According to Call, the grants now allow for $50,000 to every County Agricultural Society and $100,000 per fair fro capital improvements “that the customer would see coming on the grounds either fair week or off-season of the facility appearance,” he said. “Junior, fair support through the state budget is steady and is not changed.”

It seems that the Ohio state government and its fairs are finally in synch in terms of spreading agricultural awareness. “As Ohio becomes more urbanized, those fairs have adjusted their programming towards Ag, education and adopted their entertainment — free grounds acts to reflect the community's tastes,” said Call. “County fairs remain important to the community as it provides that vehicle for the 4-H and FFA students to participate as well as we're seeing an increase in the urban counties of participation in the home departments in the way of canning and vegetables as more people are starting to look at that option for their food supply.”

Governor Mike DeWine

The highest-profile convention highlight was an appearance by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and other officials at the annual Agriculture Breakfast, which showcases the annual Ohio Fair Hall of Fame. Attendance at the breakfast was reported to exceed 800. The day after the convention Gov. DeWine announced that Adam Heffron will replace long-time General Manager Virgil Strickler, who is retiring.  “I am excited to welcome Adam Heffron back to Ohio to lead the next period of growth and development at the Ohio State Fair,” said Governor Mike DeWine. “Adam has the experience and passion to make our state fair the best in the nation. He will lead the changes outlined in the Expo 2050 plan that will make our fairgrounds even better for fairgoers, exhibitors, and other visitors.”

It's been the Ohio State Fair's continued resurgence that energized this year's gathering of the Buckeye fair industry. After the 2017 fatal ride accident and consecutive cancelations during the pandemic lockdown, this iconic Midwestern event came back strong in 2023 reaching a reported  attendance of 1,006,228, an increase of about 16.7 percent over the 2022 event and the  highest 12-day attendance on record since going to 12 days in 2004.

The biggest fair in the state breaking its own records proved to be the rising tide lifting all boats. According  to Call, “Positive financial Reports coming out of the Ohio State Fair on the midway in vendor participation” set not just an upbeat tone for the meeting, but the 2023 Buckeye Fair Season – “The County fairs pretty much followed that uptick and trend across-the-board.”

Even though Call insisted that “Ohio Fairs had a tremendous 2023 season with very few weather difficulties,” he was quick to point out that convention attendees were also clear-eyed about looming challenges. “We are seeing a slight trend towards more evening participation versus daytime participation, especially in the urban counties,” said Call. “Spending at the beginning of the 2023 season was very, very strong, but around Labor Day we saw decline in spending and a higher usage of credit cards across those fall fairs. But overall spending was very good even with the inflation markup of goods. “

He added, “Challenges moving forward is concerned over the tightening economy and inflation, and what impact that will have.  We believe people will stay closer to home for their entertainment value, and the county fairs provide that value.  However, the county fairs are taking that into account and they're planning and their financial spending were large discussions at the 2024 convention.”

Not all the changes in the fair industry discussed at the convention had to do with the economy. “We are seeing a trend of less large animals and smaller animals,” said Call. ”Example – steers are down hogs and sheep are up.”

The association also swore in a new slate of officers: President: Stanley Strode (Morgan County Fair) 1st Vice President : Thomas Stocksdale (Wayne County Fair)  2nd Vice President Paul Lease (Columbiana County Fair)  and Treasurer: Robert Dawson (Lake County Fair).

The convention also recognized that Virgil Strickler of the Ohio State Fair was inducted Into IAFE Hall of Fame in November at the IAFE Convention and Trade Show. Leah Schuhart of the  Muskingum County Fair was named the   2024 Ohio Fairs' Queen.

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