By Ken Sturtz
With few opportunities to raise money, county fairs across New York have struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic
In the nearly three years since the gates closed on the last county fair, the fairgrounds in Sandy Creek have remained mostly unused.
Volunteers waged an endless war with weeds and worked to address a long list of needed repairs from worn-out roofs and power poles to leaky water lines and crumbling blacktop.
But the things that make a fair a fair have remained largely absent. There’ve been no horses, cows or goats kicking sawdust in the showring. No harness races, truck pulls or demolition derbies. And no children squealing for rides, carnival games and funnel cakes.
That’ll change this summer.
After enduring a hiatus and financial hardship caused by the pandemic, the Agricultural Society of Oswego County is preparing to stage the Oswego County Fair once again.
The fair opens Aug. 17 and typically attracts about 30,000 people over its five-day run. This year fair officials are hoping that after two years without a fair, and with the public eager to regain a sense of normalcy, even larger crowds will turn out.
“I want that place packed elbow to elbow, I want to be running out of parking,” said Harold Smith Jr., fair president. “That’s what I want.”
The agricultural society’s board and members are all volunteers and canceling the fair two years in a row was hard on the organization’s morale, Smith said.
A larger challenge was the fact that the fair had to continue paying its regular bills for things such as water, electricity and insurance despite not having many of its usual revenue streams from vendors, events and sponsors.
“It’s been really tough because we haven’t been able to do much fundraising,” said Timothy Ridgeway, the fair’s senior vice president.
The year before the pandemic began the fair reported revenue of about $239,000 and expenses of $155,000, according to tax filings. In 2020, the fair’s revenue plunged to $53,000 and expenses totaled $63,000, for a $10,000 deficit.
With the pandemic limiting fundraising options, the fair considered having food trucks come to the fairgrounds for an event, but it didn’t come together. Ridgeway said they decided against doing chicken barbecues because they’re so plentiful as fundraisers. In the end they settled on several smaller fundraisers, including a fall festival at the fair. That helped a little, he said. They were also able to continue renting the barns on the fairgrounds out for winter boat storage. That brings the fair about $50,000 annually.
Smith said the fair tries to keep things affordable for families and doesn’t charge for admission or parking as some other fairs do, which forces them to rely more on other revenue streams such as sponsorships. But during the pandemic it was particularly difficult to ask businesses for support when many were struggling themselves, he said.
The problems of the Oswego County Fair were not unique. Each of the state’s 55 fairs have suffered tremendously because of the pandemic, said Edward Rossley, president of the New York State Association of Agricultural Fairs.
All but a handful of the fairs rely entirely on volunteers and many had to invent new ways to stay afloat financially.
“Some fairs weren’t set up to be able to not have any income,” Rossley said. “It’s been a challenge.”
He said some fairs couldn’t have any events on their grounds, although about 20 managed to hold food truck events to raise money. Other fairs turned to any ideas they could to bring in money such as raffles and motorcycle runs. Some fairs had virtual animal shows and other events to keep the public’s interest.
Rossley, who is also president of the Delaware County Fair, said that once fairs were able to reopen people came streaming back. In 2021, six or seven fairs remained shuttered because they didn’t receive the OK to move forward soon enough.
That was the case with Oswego. By the time they received clearance to go ahead with the fair they had just three months to prepare, which wasn’t possible, Smith said. Entertainment and ride operators typically book closer to a year in advance for county fairs. As disappointing as it was to cancel the fair a second year in a row, Smith said there was a silver lining.
“That extra year that we could not have a fair gave us time to raise the money to have the fair,” he said.
The first order of business was picking a date for this year. Usually the fair would be the second weekend in August, but Smith said another fair picked that date and in order to secure a ride company Oswego had to pick a different date.
With a ride company booked, Smith said volunteers are working on getting the fairgrounds ready. They’ve refreshed the fair website, changed some of the buildings around to give them a new look and hired several new family-friendly entertainment acts as well as a walk-through butterfly display. Other highlights include giveaways of more than 50 bicycles and 250 backpacks as well as a quilt show featuring more than 100 quilts.
They’ve also set the grandstand lineup; this year it will include a horse show, demolition derbies, barrel racing and truck pulls.
Smith said they’re already publicizing the fair so everyone will know the annual event is indeed happening this year.