County fairs reversing declines in attendance

Montgomery County Fair enjoys upward trend in recent years.

As entertainment options grow and agriculture communities shrink, the county fair tradition appears to be thriving.

County fairs aren’t big money makers — fair managers say they’re happy just to break even — but attendance is a different story. Organizers say growing crowds on the midway and enticing families with children through the gate and into the barns is the key to a successful fair.

Attendance at the Montgomery County Fair, which runs through Monday, is down about 20 percent over a decade ago, but the trend in recent years shows an upward swing with 82,000 people walking through the gate last year. Fair attendance increased about 10 percent from 2005 to 2010.

In rural Darke County, fair patronage is soaring with more than 203,000 visitors last year and gate receipts of more than $500,000. While Miami County had a dip in patrons last year, fair goers topped 112,000 this summer.

“I see county fairs in a stable trend, if not upwards,” Caroline McColloch, manager of the Miami County Fair said. “They’re not going away anytime soon.”

Don Michael, president of the Montgomery County Agricultural Society Board of Trustees believes county fairs are more relevant than ever.

The Montgomery County Fairgrounds is on much-sought-after real estate across from Miami Valley Hospital. For years developers have talked about finding better uses for the property, but Michael couldn’t disagree more.

“In 41 years we’ll celebrate our 200th fair,” he said. “I expect we’ll be here.”

GuideStar, a database of nonprofit groups that contains financial filings, indicates that the Montgomery County Agricultural Society reported a significant decrease in fund balances on its 990 form for 2009 compared to the year before. Net assets fell from $128,591 to $80,045, due to decreases in program service revenue, investment income and other revenue, while salaries increased.

“Fairs are really not big money making things. We try to make enough money to keep going,” Michael said.

With fewer people involved in agriculture, Michael sees county fairs as an opportunity to educate.

About 75 children from Springboro’s Minds-in-Motion school and the Montessori Center of South Dayton attended Education Dayton at the fair on Friday and took part in science, agricultural and wellness programs. Michael hopes to grow that number to at least 500, with an all-day program.

“It’s our job to educate these children,” Michael said. “I am a farmer. My family has been showing at the fair since 1917. I know it as a family tradition. We want people who don’t have an opportunity to live on a farm to feel the same.”

In more rural counties like Darke and Miami, fairs are like reunions with farming families who have supported the event for generations coming together.

The Darke County Fair attracted more than 203,000 paying patrons to the fairgrounds during the nine-day event last month, up from 198,302 in 2005. Those figures don’t include children 12 and younger, who weren’t charged the $5 admission fee. Total gate receipts: $534,162.

“We’re still smokin’,” Fair Manager Daryl Riffle said. “We’re growing involvement.”

About 1,800 children participated in junior fair events and other activities.

In Miami County, McColloch said the 120-stall, junior fair horse barn that opened last summer demonstrates the community’s commitment to the more than century-old tradition.

“To make that kind of investment shows what the fair board thinks about the future of the junior fair,” she said. “The fair involves a really tight-knit community of people who have come together for years and years. They’re a very resilient group.”

But, even the most successful fair can hit a snag and see attendance fall.

“A huge factor is the economy and how much expendable income a family has,” McColloch said. “If you’re worried about making your house payment, you’re probably not going to the fair.”

And, weather remains one of the biggest variables that can drive attendance down.

“If you hit a hot week, or if have spotty rain like we did last year, attendance is going to be off,” Duane Grimme, manager of the Preble County Fair said.

Attendance at the Preble fair, held July 30 to Aug. 6, is generally around 60,000. That figure was down about 4 percent this year due to the extreme heat.

“I know we are down, but I’m comfortable with the numbers. I still think there is a place for county fairs,” said Grimme, adding about 800 youth participated in the 2011 fair.

As a non-profit organization, Grimme said, “We feel comfortable if we’re able to pay our bills and we’ve been able to pay our bills the last four or five years.”

Visitor and gate receipt data from the Greene County Fair were not available before press time.

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