by Abbey Marshall

Note: After this story was published, Gov. Mike DeWine announced he is limiting all county fairs to junior fair events only, prohibiting all rides, food and grandstand events  starting July 31. The Summit County Fair will proceed, the fairgrounds announced on Facebook, because it begins before DeWine’s mandate.

Despite at least one county fair-linked outbreak with 19 confirmed cases, the Summit County fair will proceed as scheduled on July 29. Back in May, Gov. Mike DeWine said each Ohio county could decide whether to proceed with its own fair.

But both he and then-Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton recommended that fairs be limited to 4-H and FFA Junior Fair activities.

The problem is, to put on just the Junior Fair without rides and food would cost about $70,000, says Summit County Fair Board Director Cathy Cunningham. The entire fair in a typical year, she says, costs about $170,000 to $200,000 to put on, with the fair just about breaking even.

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The only financially feasible way to host the Junior Fair is to hold the “Everything Fair,” including rides, food vendors and entertainment, she says. 

“There’s so much work we’ve put into it and the money and time and effort put into these 4-H projects,” says Dylan Leipold, the 17-year-old Junior Fair Board president. “After the fair ends in August, we immediately start planning. This is not just a fair thing or a summer thing.”

Leipold is among the 105 kids who plan to present their projects through 4-H, a youth organization focused on leadership and practical skills such as agricultural practices. The Fair Board confirmed to The Devil Strip that this number is only slightly less than a typical year due to the virus.

“The fair is the opportunity to show the culmination of all our time and hard work,” says Leipold, who raises rabbits for his 4-H projects. “It’s just a chance to come together, show off, meet with the judges, share our knowledge and demonstrate what we’ve been doing.”

For those that show livestock, their projects end with a sale to local businesses who bid on chickens, steers and more for their meat. The money those kids make, Leipold said, usually goes toward college savings. He also estimates that 50% of the meat that’s produced from the sold animals are donated by businesses to local homeless shelters and food pantries. Last year, he says, Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank received about 500 to 700 pounds of poultry through donors from the fair.

If the fair didn’t happen, Leipold adds, the kids who raised animals they didn’t originally intend to keep would likely have to sell off their livestock at a loss because they do not have the resources to keep animals alive or the freezer space for the meat. 

Aside from the Junior Fair, Cunningham says the fairgrounds are hemorrhaging money and need to set up protocol in order to continue with the rented space for events starting in September that sustain them. Since the fairgrounds closed in mid-March, they’ve lost about $85,000.

“We’re just trying to do the same things that all the other businesses are doing to sustain ourselves,” Cunningham says. “You see reports that COVID could be here next summer, so everybody has to figure out what protocols to stay safe and stay living.”

Despite these reasons for the fair proceeding, county fair boards have garnered much criticism from opponents who cite the surge of positive coronavirus cases in the slowly reopening state after months of an initial lockdown. 

In order to increase safety measures and comply with state guidelines for county fairs, the fair will take a day off with lessened daytime hours. Other events and exhibits, such as the tractor pull, pet parade, Farm Burea Museum and more will be canceled or closed. All rides will also be closed for a “safety break” for an hour each day. All food stands, exhibit halls and livestock barns will follow state guidelines for restaurants. The children presenting 4-H projects will sign up for time in the barn in shifts to take care of their animals.

In addition, the fair will be operating at half capacity, with only 5,000 people allowed on the grounds. The grand stand will be limited to 1,500 with social distancing measures in place. Masks will be required, in line with the statewide mask mandate for public spaces.

“By putting on the fair, we can keep going,” Cunningham says. “How do we justify opening our shows or having weddings in our hall if we didn’t do the fair? We want to show the community that we can come, and then you can feel comfortable coming here for dog show, alpaca show, craft shows.”

Industries that partner with the fair, such as food vendors and amusement companies, would also be hard hit if the fair were to be canceled. County fairs serve as a majority of business for rides companies, and a year without fairs could result in permanent closures. 

“It would hurt very hardworking people: food truck industry, amusement companies, a lot of businesses and families,” says Liepold. “To have the full fair gives those people an opportunity to make some money because a lot of them are very much struggling. Even if the fair has a lower turnout than usual, it’ll help them stay open.”

Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at abbey@thedevilstrip.com.

Photos: The Summit County Fair in 2019. Photos by Fair Sponsorship Coordinator Abby Studer. Used with permission from Cathy Cunningham.

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