State fairs balance old and new to keep afloat

  • The Deerfield Fair's new animal barns. —Courtesy

  • Brothers Greg Jenks (left) and Ron Jenks take a look at a 1928 Economy saw rig at the farm museum run by the New Hampshire Antique Tractor Club at the Cornish Fair in Cornish on Aug. 19. Photos by ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Devin Lucero (left) and his 7-year-old twins, Chase and Addison, ride the Scrambler at the Cornish Fair in Cornish.

  • Members of the audience raise their hands for a chance to participate in The Hillbilly Silly Science Spectacular at the Cornish Fair in Cornish on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Curt Strutz performs as Dr. Cletus Beaker during his show, The Hillbilly Silly Science Spectacular, at the Cornish Fair in Cornish on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Sheridan Doyle of Winthrop, Maine, competes in the ax throwing woodsmen’s field day contest at the Cornish Fair. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/26/2017 10:16:42 PM

The record-setting weight of blue hubbard squash, the neatest of sheared sheep, and the distinct crunch of an old-fashioned demolition derby remain central to the allure of the state’s agricultural fairs.

But year after year, fair organizers have to get creative to draw people’s interest and keep attendance up.

“You have to think that fairs are like a business,” said Bob Allen, vice president of the New Hampshire Association of Fairs & Expositions and treasurer of the Hopkinton State Fair. “And basically all fairs are up against the very same problems, which is what to offer new to the fair goer? What’s going to keep them coming back?”

While interest in agriculture is still strong in the state, fairs can no longer rely solely on their roots if they want to keep visitors coming back, Allen said. This can sometimes mean dropping big bucks on infrastructure upgrades, or gambling on expensive entertainment.

Sometimes it pays off, other times it doesn’t.

Earlier this month, the Belknap County 4-H Fair drew 15,000 visitors, double last year’s attendance, said fair president Earl Leighton. Likewise, a record number of animals were shown, something Leighton attributed to the fair’s investment in new pig and sheep pens.

While other fair staples were present, like ox-pulling, tractor demonstrations and enough fried dough to fill Paugus Bay, visitors could also check out some newer additions, like monster truck demonstrations.

Visitors to the Cornish Fair last weekend had the option to hitch a ride on a helicopter or catch a Wildlife Adventure show in between trips to the midway or the animal barns.

But the path to financial stability can be tenuous, even for the most established fairs. This past year, the Rochester Fair fell victim to declining attendance and mounting debt and closed down after 142 years in operation.

Operational expenses

If there’s any fair that understands investing in its agricultural roots, it’s the Deerfield Fair.

Sure, there’s a demolition derby, but that’s relegated to Monday, the weakest day of the fair, said Deerfield Fair spokesman Richard Pitman. Instead, the highlights are classic fair events, like sheep shearing, horse showing and giant pumpkin-weighing contests.

Being agriculturally-heavy pays off: Pitman said the fair sees an average of 150,000 visitors during the fair’s four-day span.

“That’s what people want to see,” Pitman said. “Since the beginning, we’ve put all our resources into promoting agriculture. . . . I’d say we’re 90 percent agriculture and 10 percent everything else.”

This year, visitors will be enjoying those events on bigger and better fairgrounds – Pitman said the fair has expanded its borders by five acres, improved the facilities’ electrical systems and has introduced two “state of the art” animal barns, each 60 feet wide and over 200 feet long.

Those investments came to a total of $500,000, a daunting, but necessary, amount Pitman said was critical to maintaining the fair’s agricultural pull. “It was a big nut for us to crack in one year,” he said.

A look at financial disclosures shows how investing hundreds of thousands of dollars is part of doing business, but doesn’t leave a lot left over.

For instance, the Deerfield Fair brought in $1.8 million worth of revenue in 2015, $2 million in 2014 and $2.1 million in 2013, according to financial documents.

The Hopkinton State Fair brought in $915,140 in revenue in 2015, $907,061 in 2014, and $845,038 in 2013, according to financial documents. Recent financial information for the Belknap 4-H group was not readily available.

Ticket sales bring in the bulk of revenue, followed closely by concession sales.

But those revenues are often stacked against heavy expenses. The Deerfield Fair spent $1.5 million in 2015 and 2014, and $1.4 million in 2013, according to financial documents.

The Hopkinton State Fair’s total expenses were $967,461 in 2015, $863,392 in 2014 and $997,088 in 2013, according to financial documents.

The biggest expenses tend to be related to basic fair operations, like salaries and wages (both the Deerfield Fair, the Hopkinton Fair and the Belknap County 4-H Fair boards are run by volunteers), insurance, and contracting local police and fire services. Pitman said the Deerfield Fair pays $150,000 in property taxes, $100,000 in insurance, $100,000 for fair security and $40,000 in electrical costs each year.

Those ground floor costs can make other costs seem daunting. The Belknap County 4-H Fair was faced this year with an $11,000 electrical upgrade expense. Thanks to donated services and funds, the fair only had to pay $1,500 for the project, Leighton said.

Allen said the Hopkinton State Fair recently buried its electrical cables to comply with new safety codes, an expense of $50,000. A few years ago, a tree came down and smashed one of the bathrooms, causing the entire building to need renovation.

“We’ve been very cautious about major capital expenditures that aren’t necessary,” Allen said.

Are you not entertained?

In hopes of boosting attendance, Allen said the Hopkinton Fair will be trying something new this year by bringing in Recycled Percussion, a New Hampshire-based band that has played at the Super Bowl and in Las Vegas. Previously, the fair has shied away from big-name performers.

“You can’t sell enough tickets to make it worth the price to get them there,” Allen said. “You look at the smaller fairs, and they just can’t afford them. You have to find something that is more desirable to the local person.”

Decisions on whether to gamble on a performer have to be made months in advance. Ed Samson, president of the Lancaster State Fair’s board of directors, said that planning for the next fair begins as soon as the current one ends. The fair’s headliner entertainment this year is Sawyer Brown, a country music band from Florida.

“We have to get involved in discussing entertainers by January,” he said. “If your entertainment isn’t booked by June, pickings get fewer in between. . . . It’s pretty much a year-round business.”

Of course, fairs can always rely on faithful attractions like tractor pulls, horse shows and car-crunching derbies, which Allen said draws a huge crowd to the Hopkinton State Fair every year.

Having a midway, an area devoted to amusement rides, is almost always a staple of fairs, but they come with their own set of financial challenges.

John Flynn of Fiesta Shows said fair ride providers are facing rising transportation and ride operation costs because of diesel fuel prices. Changes to the H-B2 visa program has also made it more difficult to find workers who travel with the midway to set up, operate and take down fair rides.

All those costs get passed onto fair goers, Flynn said. He estimated a single fair ride ticket has gone from 25 cents two decades ago to around $1.10 per ticket.

The Belknap County 4-H Fair got rid of its midway a few years ago, something Leighton said was part of an effort to make the fair more family friendly and affordable. “A few years ago, I took my three sort-of grandchildren to a midway, we spent $40, and within 30 minutes they were looking for something else to do,” he said.

Instead, Leighton has been promoting antique cars and engines, as well as a strong artisanal craft fair.

But no matter what new attraction fairs bring to their grounds, officials agreed the state’s fairs’ agricultural roots are far from withered.

“I think the interest in it goes up and down,” according to Allen, who also said Hopkinton’s agricultural exhibits have been “nothing but rebounding” for the last five years. He said the fair has had even more interest since the fair rearranged its space to accommodate more animals.

For Pitman, there’s never been a doubt that agriculture will always be at the heart of the Deerfield Fair.

“We have to turn people away who want to show their animals in exhibits sometimes, and it’s awful,” he said. “We’ve been around for 140 years, and it’s always been about agriculture. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter @ActualCAndrews.)

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