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Younger Managers & New Funding: New York State Fairs Back on The Wagon
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With one of most supportive state governments in the U.S., and its two largest fairs – the New York State Fair and the Erie County Fair – having robust post-lockdown  resurgences with record attendance days, the 134th annual New York State Association of Agricultural Fairs (NYSAF) Convention saw a reinvigorated network of fairs taking practical steps to achieve a banner year.  Meeting attendance was about 385 – “just shy of 400” according to Ed Rossley, Past-President, NYSAF and manager of the Delaware County Fair – but an increase of about 10 percent over 2022 – with all of the 52 Empire State fairs  represented.

A steady, upwards trajectory of attendance increases seemed the direct reflection of the 2022 season – attendance and spending upticks were not limited to the two largest fairs, but network-wide. “New York fairs had  a good year in 2022, some of them banner years,” said Rossley. “People were trying new things at their fairs, changing the way they've done things and looking forward to bigger things.”

During his tenure as president, Rossley made it a point to visit every New York Fair. “I continue to be impressed by what is happening with our fairs and how they're building on their successes.”

Youth Movement

What struck him the most during his presidential fair-tour was how the fairs responded to their communities and created a multicultural event relevant to today's families.  “People are more apprehensive about the economy, but heading to their local fair is affordable fun and one of the best things we do for local economies. It amazes me, the growth of fairs, and the growth of agriculture industry in the state.”

N.Y. Fairs are reenergized going into the 2023 season and perhaps one reason why was apparent at the convention – youth.  Seemingly, COVID disruptions accelerated turnover and attrition, spurring a new generation rising into the management ranks of  NY fairs.  As Rossley noted, far more young people were in attendance than pre-pandemic conventions. “We are seeing a youth movement,” he said. “We were seeing more young people working in management of the carnival rides and concessions, but now we are seeing more young people working the fair side in leadership positions at county fairs and that is something we as organization are building on.”

While not the most statistically scientific metric, a telling piece of data at the 2023 convention is perhaps indicative of this new wave of enthusiasm was, if not the biggest Red Wagon Parade in its 134 years, one of its biggest of the 21st century.  The convention theme was “Carnival Time” – a tagline used  in various places throughout the literature and promotional copy related to the meeting – but its most visible usage is the Red Wagon Parade, where the county fairs decorate a red wagon with something indicative about their own fair.

The Red Wagon's pull had steadily waned over the years, with the last pre-pandemic parade having only three participants. In 2023, 18 wagons were paraded. “People designed Ferris Wheels and fun things on the wagon. It had died down, but this year there was great enthusiasm for it. People are excited about their fairs.”
As mass shootings continue to proliferate in the United States, security was a top-most topic of discussion at the New York convention, as it has been at nearly all fair meetings post-pandemic. “We had roundtable discussions and seminars on safety by highly trained individuals.”

State Support

The convention's other most newsworthy initiative was an intensive grant-writing seminar. Infrastructure, marketing and other government grants are available – and it's not that requirements are arduous – it's more that the grant writing process is challenging – and for the fairs that can't hire a professional, the 2023 convention provided informational and training sessions on the available grants and how to apply.  

“We had representatives from the Department Of Agriculture helping with the applications,” he added.

Second in terms of newsworthiness to what consensus agreement indicates to be a banner year for the state's fair industry, was the surprise to most management shift that occurred scarcely two months before the opening of the 2022 Great New York State Fair.

Troy Waffner was appointed to a newly created job of Statewide Coordinator for all of New York's county fairs. Waffner, whose appointment to Fair Director in 2018  followed five previous years as Acting Director, was at the helm during a period of sustained attendance growth and record attendance for this Northeast event phenomenon as well the investment of $120 million in state funds into the fair's infrastructure, an unparalleled level of governmental support for fairs by any State.
One of the brightest hallmarks of his remarkable career has been managing an advertising budget of approximately $1.2 million that includes a most lucrative partnership with  I Love (“heart”) New York, the state's Department of Tourism and world-recognizable advertising jingle. The collaboration has been key to the fair's attendance growth with key outreach campaigns to “down-state” markets, plus New England and Canada.

Waffner's appointment and its job description  that includes words such as “statewide” and “county” fairs certainly added to the 2023 NYSAFF energy. The buzz and scuttlebutt of the convention was the question, could the state with a long-history of fair-support, bringing the Waffner magic to the fair network?

 Rossley said that Waffner did attend the convention but held no meetings in an official capacity. Nothing more is known other than a more detailed announcement on the appointment is expected in April.

A spokesperson with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets confirmed to Carnival Warehouse that the official title is Statewide Agricultural Development Director and emailed this statement: 

As Statewide Agricultural Fair Development Director, Troy describes his position as having the following descriptions:
  • evaluate ways to increase marketing and promotion of County Fairs
  • evaluate opportunities to improve youth and agricultural programming initiatives at all fairs statewide
  • act as a liaison with County Fairs at their board meetings, events and functions
  • work with  County Fairs on issues that affect them on a state level
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