Even in an age when most of the younger generation’s daily life seems devoted to checking social media, other online activities and video games, many families still are happy to spend a day at the fair.
Some fair organizers throughout the state say the slow economic recovery has only intensified interest in fairs, as families see them as less costly alternatives to vacations than resorts and theme parks.
But development pressures on fair property serve as constant reminders that despite their nostalgic tradition, fairs must find new ways to adapt to the 21st century.
“They’re a safe environment, a throwback to simpler times,” said Gail Yeiser, assistant to the dean for alumni and external relations for the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Some fairs, most of which operate as nonprofits, generate millions in revenues. The Maryland State Fair in Timonium reported $5.7 million in 2010 revenues, according its latest available tax return. But the revenues often are practically offset by large expenses, such as $5.6 million in reported expenses for the state fair that year.
The state fair costs $8 for admission and runs from Aug. 24 through Sept. 3.
“You can’t even go to the movies for that price anymore,” said Andrew Cashman, assistant general manager for the state fair. “Most of the people we talk to say people aren’t traveling for vacations but will come to the fair for one day.”
Although a tropical storm and earthquake slammed the state fair last year, Cashman said it usually sees strong turnouts.
Anywhere from 7,000 to 12,000 exhibitors show at the state fair, displaying livestock and crafts, and giving demonstrations. Typically, an additional 75 to 100 vendors line the 100-acre fairgrounds, Cashman said.
“Within the industry, it’s a great marketing tool,” Yeiser said. “There’s economic decisions to exhibit, but a lot continue because it’s their way to tell the story of their product.”
The Montgomery County Agricultural Fair in Gaithersburg, which started Aug. 10 and runs through Saturday, hopes to draw even more people this year than last through facility improvements and an enhanced marketing campaign, said Martin Svrcek, its executive director. Last year, the fair drew about 220,000 people. This is the fair’s 64th year.
Along with using its Facebook presence to promote award winners and share pictures, the Montgomery fair also uses direct mail to 140,000 families in the area and places ads on the sides of commuter buses, Svrcek said.
“Everybody in a car will get stuck in traffic sometime throughout the week and these buses are usually there in line with them,” he said. “We’re a very transient community in Montgomery County, so every year we have to advertise to new people.”
The Montgomery fair association reported a combined $2.7 million in revenues in its 2010 tax filing. The fair, which costs $10 to enter, showcases 20,000 exhibits and 140 vendors, including 32 food vendors, Svrcek said.
“Hundreds of 4-H kids depend on the fairground for an opportunity to showcase,” he said, referring to the youth organization administered by the National Institute for Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This year, the Montgomery fair has installed new seating at its Pepco Community Stage and laid new asphalt, Svrcek said.
“We always try to bring new attractions,” he said, with this year’s fair including a monster truck that transforms into a dinosaur, breathes fire and bites a car in half.
Fairs also face the challenge of keeping an information-saturated populace aware of their existence, said Blair Hill, president of the Howard County Fair Association. “You have to get that percentage of the wallet. There’s a lot of different options for people to spend their money.”
With the cost of fuel and basic operations rising, fairs must get more savvy about marketing, he said. The Howard fair in West Friendship has focused on investing in its website this year, as that is where most people look first for information, Hill said. He said the fair also partnered with an online coupon sponsor to offer deals such as admission for four for the price of two.
The Howard County just ended its 2012 edition, running Aug. 4-10.
“We were pleasantly surprised at how well we did this year,” Hill said. “There’s a uniqueness to this experience that doesn’t seem so commercialized in regards to other entertainment outlets. It becomes an annual tradition. You see the livestock and get your funnel cake.”
The Howard fair received almost $1 million in revenues last year 2011, he said. It includes thousands of exhibitors and 200 vendors. This year, the 150 indoor vendor locations were completely booked for the first year ever, which Hill attributed to renovated air conditioning systems.
Entertainment for dollar value
“When it comes to entertainment for dollar value, nothing comes close to the fair,” said Becky Brashear, general manager of the Great Frederick Fair, which will celebrates its 150th year next month. “There’s so many things a family can do that don’t cost extra money. The community takes a lot of pride in bringing this to the people.”
The Frederick fair runs from Sept. 14-22 on 44 acres and costs $7 to enter, although it is free on opening day from 5 to 10 p.m. It features 18,000 competitive exhibits and 200 vendors, with about 40 of them serving food. In 2010, the fair association generated $2.4 million in combined organization and fair revenues, according to its tax filing.
“Fairs are still the single largest event there is in the local community. They draw regionally as well as locally,” Brashear said.
She added that although most fairs have been successful in retaining most of their vendors, all have had to become much more creative in searching for partnerships.
“That’s just the reality in this economy,” Brashear said.
The Prince George’s County Fair in Upper Marlboro runs Sept. 6-9 and bills itself on its website as “the oldest running fair in Maryland.”
Fair representatives did not return calls seeking comment. The fair lost its nonprofit status after failing to file tax returns three years in a row.
Most fair associations also supplement their revenues by leasing their land for other events during the off-season. The state fair rents its land to trade shows and festivals, while Montgomery offers its fairgrounds to Latino festivals, antique doll shows and craft festivals, and also leases it for parking for major golf events.
Fairs also keep costs down by relying on volunteers, with the Montgomery organization calling in as many as 1,200.
Development pressures increase
But as the areas around fairs become more urbanized, the vast swaths of land they occupy become more appealing to investors and developers.
Retail is starting to come back and fairgrounds, such as the 62-acre Montgomery fair, are increasingly viewed strategically for development, said Ronayne Waldron, senior vice president of McShea & Co., a real estate services company in Gaithersburg.
Almost $300 million worth of new construction related to multifamily housing in the area within the last 18 months puts the fairgrounds, on Md. 355, in “extreme premium,” he said.
“Multifamily is what’s trending,” Waldron said.
The fairgrounds property was assessed at $14.4 million in January, according to the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation. The Gaithersburg City Council also rezoned the fairgrounds in June, making it more attractive for development.
“I could see the office market improving and industrial [research and development] in Montgomery County,” Waldron said.
Svrcek said the fair’s position is that the land is not for sale.
“This property will be the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair until it becomes the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair elsewhere. Our mission is fostering agricultural education, supporting the 4-H clubs and keeping the community abreast of how agriculture affects their daily lives. As long as that continues to be our mission, the fair will exist,” he said. “The Montgomery County fair is here in 2012 and plans to be here for many years to come.”
Waldron also said the improved roads near the Frederick fairgrounds make that property equally accessible and attractive.
“At some point, the values become so compelling that something has to be done,” he said. “It’s all about location, and that’s a heck of a location.”
Hill said his own fair in Howard County is protected from development pressures because it is buffered by other preserved land.
Although the 131-year-old state fair would love to enjoy 300 acres instead of its 100, it would “have to look awfully hard” before any moves, Cashman said.
Swine flu precautions
As for recent warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about swine flu found at fairs in several other states, Maryland fair organizers say they are taking proper precautions. They mentoned having wash stations by each animal pavilion and throughout the fair, along with signs advising people to wash hands frequently.
The state fair also has its usual private inspector and veterinarian check on animals entering the fairgrounds, as well as an agriculture department representative, Cashman said.
“We’ve been checking more than we ever have been and telling owners to be proactive in monitoring their pigs,” he said.
The organizers do not expect the warnings to reduce visits to exhibits, they said.
“The community understands we’re doing whatever we have to do to keep them safe,” Svrcek said.