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NACo
County Solutions and Innovation Blog​​
August 26
A Fair Investment

​Written by Anya Nowakowski, CIC Research Assistant.

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When the weather is warm and the nights are long, county fairs — one of America’s longest traditions — give an economic boost to communities during the summer and are a revenue generator for county governments.  Despite a slight drop off in attendance during the economic downturn, county fairs are still thriving, with attendance up and more fiscal and economic benefits to the communities they showcase.

County fairs bring businesses and visitors who contribute to the local economy and support local jobs.  In addition to county residents, county fairs attract visitors from outside the county, bringing tourism dollars into the communities through spending on lodging, at local restaurants and for other goods and services.  While many county fairs are supported by volunteer networks, county fairs support jobs, often a significant number for rural communities in which fairs are traditionally held.  For example, the Nevada County Fair in California created 200 jobs within the community in 2009 – these are jobs with the fair organizers and commercial businesses, as well as with local vendors and suppliers experiencing increases in business.  County governments benefit too from county fairs, through higher tax revenues — sales, hotel and property taxes — generated by the increase in business.  For example, the Nevada County government collected an estimated $274,700 through tax revenues as a result of fair activities in 2009.  These taxes are often collected from visitors coming from outside of the county and used to fund programs in the local community.

Counties tweaked and sometimes transformed their traditional fair experiences to better fit the changing demographics of the community and its needs.  In the past, county fairs were often focused on agricultural traditions.  Counties are beginning to incorporate activities and programs that are more appealing to younger and more urbanized crowds.  For example, while keeping with many of the traditional activities – such as pig races and pie contests – the San Mateo County Fair added more contemporary entertainment, such as a series of free concerts and performances by Chinese acrobats.  Others are more radical.  Next month, Allegheny County, Pa. will host its 4th annual Allegheny Green Innovation Festival that will feature fair activities focused on educating visitors on how to reduce their carbon footprint.

In the past, many counties heavily relied on state contributions to support the annual tradition.  Cuts in state and county budgets forced counties to find alternative funding sources.  Many counties, especially in California, are partnering with nonprofits to support county fairs.  For example, in 2012 Santa Cruz County, Calif. established a nonprofit to fund the operation of their fair.  Santa Cruz Friends of the Fair started collecting donations and sponsors to make the over 100 years old tradition a self-sustaining operation.  Additionally, the Santa Cruz County Fair introduced new and innovative programs to attract visitors and rented out buildings on the fairgrounds to keep the county fair reasonably priced.

To maintain the tradition of county fairs, counties had to innovate and focus on the  economic aspects of these cultural events.  County residents continue to swarm county fairgrounds on warm summer evenings to enjoy wholesome educational activities for the entire family, simultaneously providing a much needed boost to their local economies.

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