By Philip Sayblack, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
County agriculture fairs are big business in North Carolina, but the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many of the events to be canceled or moved online, leading to economic impacts at every level in the state.
Statewide, 31 county fairs statewide have been canceled so far this year as a result of concerns surrounding the pandemic, said Kevin Hardison, agricultural marketing specialist for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
About 25 of those county fairs are operated by nonprofits, while the remainder of the events are operated by county governments, he said.
The fairs that are operated by nonprofits “generated conservatively $24 million annually for the state in past years,” Hardison said.
State fair canceled for Civil War, WWII, COVID
The N.C. State Fair is one of the events operated by a county government. It was scheduled to take place Oct. 15-25 but was canceled in July out of concerns over the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
N.C. State Fair manager Kent Yelverton said the annual event started more than 150 years ago. The last time it was canceled was during World War II. Before that, it was canceled due to the Civil War. Yelverton said canceling the fair this year was necessary.
“Our No. 1 priority is the safety and health of the staff and guests at the fairgrounds, always,” Yelverton said.
“The times that the fair was previously canceled were broad situations during which the focus was on an impactful event. Wake County is now (dealing with) COVID-19, which is impactful in its own way.”
The cancellation of the fair and more than 180 other events scheduled to take place at the state fairgrounds since February has led to the loss of an estimated $2.3 million in revenue for the fair as an entity, according to a July 29 statement from N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.
Andrea Ashby, N.C. Department of Agriculture director of public affairs, clarified that number, saying lost money is revenue that was not paid to the state fair for use of its facilities between February and the date of the fair’s cancellation.
“For our organization, that is a significant hit,” Ashby said. “We have had to use furloughs as a result of that lost revenue. Fifty-four positions in all were furloughed. Approximately 13 were temporary, so the other 41 positions were permanent. We hope the furloughs are short term, but that is yet to be determined.”
Jessica Holt, Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau public relations director, said she was unable to confirm the economic impact of the N.C. State Fair on Wake County and the state but noted the cancellation of other events in Wake County due to the pandemic has caused a loss to the county of more than $100 million.
“I can’t pinpoint the impact of the fair’s cancellation,” she said. “However, the cancellation and moving of events to an online format that we help promote through Aug. 5 has led to a loss of $118.5 million for Wake County.”
The events that the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau was promoting included the annual Dreamville concert festival and the annual World of Bluegrass Festival.
While this year’s N.C. State Fair is off, Yelverton was confident that it will return in 2021 “bigger, better and stronger than ever.” According to Yelverton, the N.C. State Fair welcomes an annual average of 1 million guests.
Wake is just one of the counties that have seen its annual agriculture fair impacted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘Big impact’ of canceled Mountain State Fair
The Mountain State Fair near Asheville was also canceled due to concerns linked to the pandemic.
WNC Agricultural Center manager Matt Buchanan said the impact of the fair’s cancellation is significant for the state’s western region.
“For us, we are a self-supporting agency and event, so it is a big impact to our budget,” he said.
“I would estimate that the economic impact to the state’s western region as a result of the cancellation is a loss of $2 million. That is from things like hotel stays, people buying gas, eating at the region’s restaurants, buying tickets to the fair and food and souvenirs at the fair.”
While the fair is off for 2020, plans are in the works for next year’s event, Buchanan said. The WNC Agricultural Center was able to hold its horse and livestock shows digitally under Gov. Roy Cooper’s mandates about athletic events, Buchanan said.
The retail shows can be held at 50% capacity in person under the rule.
‘A financial burden’ in Wilson County
While the fairs in Raleigh and Asheville are billed as regional events, local county fairs in can have a significant impact on communities.
Wilson County has also lost its annual agriculture fair due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19. The fair was scheduled to take place Sept. 22-26 at the Wilson County Fairgrounds.
Norman Harrell, N.C. Cooperative Extension director for Wilson County, said the fair’s cancellation will harm the county.
“There is going to be a financial burden on the county with the fair’s cancellation,” Harrell said.
“How the county is going to be impacted as far as economics, I can’t say right now, but it will be impacted. The county fair is a time when people can get together and celebrate the harvest. It is a time when people will be recognized for their work in terms of the crops they grow and the animals they raise. We are going to miss it. There are contests for livestock, pigs and other items with cash prizes, so that won’t happen now.”
This year would have been the fair’s 87th consecutive year, she said, adding that the 2021 fair is planned for Sept. 21-26.
“Losing the fair this year is a significant financial impact to the county and the fairgrounds, but keeping the community safe is more important,” Wilson County Fair manager Debbie Hill said.
“Between the money that people spend at the fair and the money that vendors spend when they come from out of town, I would say the economic impact is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
“Wilson County businesses will be impacted by postponing the fair until 2021,” said Assistant County Manager Ron Hunt.
“Fair attendees often dine out at local restaurants and purchase gas and supplies from local stores, but the Wilson County Fair is much more than the rides and games. I remember my children eagerly collecting and preparing numerous things to enter in fair exhibits.
“Science projects, woodcarvings, paintings, leaf and rock collections were proudly exhibited for all to see. The fair enhances creativity and inspires friendly competition in our youth as well as our adults. The county will miss our time at the fair this year. We look forward to safely coming back together in the future.”
Asked about the specific impact of the fair’s cancellation on the county, Wilson Visitors Center Executive Director Sandra Homes put local losses in the context of the statewide economic struggles since the health crisis began.
“Since March 1, 2020, the state of North Carolina has lost revenues of $6.8 billion due to COVID,” Homes said.
“Most local fairs draw local attendance or daytrippers, therefore not as much new money is trickling in with the exception of vendors spending while in town. There are some room nights with our hotels during the weeklong event.
“The cancellation of the Wilson County Fair affects those participants who depend on food, merchandise and souvenir items and ticket sales primarily.”
Additional agricultural fairs and related events have faced cancelation across the state.
Among these are the Apple Festival in Lincolnton, the Pitt County Fair in Greenville and the Somethin’ Pumpkin Festival in Gastonia.
In an effort to alleviate the impact of fair cancellations nationwide, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., introduced bipartisan legislation to award grant funding to offset economic losses.
H.R. 7883, the Agricultural Fairs Rescue Act was introduced July 30 and has remained in the House Committee on Agriculture since that time.