While Iowa is known for its agricultural and industrial work ethic; woven into its culture are more than a few strands of fun. From ice cream socials and concerts and art festivals and fairs, Iowans take time off to celebrate life. That activity may signal, as well, something psychological about the health of our state.
The numbers are hard to track because they come from so many sources, but the Iowa Tourism Office claims tourism is a $5.4-billion industry. The agency says the industry employs more than 62,000 people and generates more than $280 million in tax revenue every year.
Those revenues more than cover many of the state’s recreational programs. But the broader economic impact of all this fun is considerably greater. Iowa State University economist David Swenson provides us with this perspective.
David Swenson: Fairs and festivals are part of the mix of attractions that people use to spend their household earnings. Bowling ballet, bull fighting, and, and fairs they all are the same thing. People get a chance to spend their money either locally or they get a chance to travel somewhere to spend their money. So attractions are a big part of a local economy.
Narrator: David Swenson says economists see fairs and festivals as providing two types of economic benefits: first, keeping local dollars within their community, and second, having outside money come into town.
David Swenson: If you send a dollar to Des Moines or you send a dollar to New York City or you send a dollar to Oklahoma City, those dollars may have a lot of trouble finding their way back to your local economy, but if you spend that dollar locally, if it's a local dollar that's spent locally or if it's an outside dollar that's spent locally then that dollar stays in that economy at least for a round or two additional spending. It buys utilities, it buys other kinds of inputs, it pays a worker. The worker is able to make a mortgage. So the money gets to stay in the economy a little bit longer it gets to roll around the economy a little bit longer and it helps to sustain the local economic foundation.
Narrator: If your local economy is stable, then it’s those outside dollars that will give your town a financial lift.
David Swenson: You want to bring visitors to your town. Outside money into your town and that's, that's number one because that's money that otherwise wouldn't have gotten spent there.
Narrator: The Iowa Tourism Office lists more than 2,000 events on their website. These events come in all sizes and types: Music Festivals, food fests, cultural celebrations… Displays of arts, crafts, hot air balloons, horses, livestock, crops… and competitions, like rodeos and races.
The Des Moines Arts Festival can draw more than 200,000 visitors in one weekend, and it’s one of the nation’s largest art shows.
In Davenport, the annual Bix Music Festival also features a companion – 7 mile road race. It attracts 20,000 runners, 5,000 volunteers, and a big crowd to cheer them on.
These events are all meant to wow, and to draw a crowd.
Two of Iowa’s biggest annual events are Fairs:
The Clay County Fair in Spencer, which calls itself “The World’s Greatest County Fair.” It’s the biggest county fair in Iowa, and usually draws around 300,000 people during its 9-day run. They estimate about one-third of their visitors are from Minnesota.
And, the Iowa State Fair, which attracts 1 million guests in just 11 days.
David Swenson claims that fairs and festivals don’t amount to much in the economic big picture, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important.
David Swenson: They are a part of the Iowa economy. Are they an important part of the Iowa economy, that’s a good question.
When we compare it to all the other kinds of industrial activates that are going on. Fairs and festivals are kind of small. They're not a big deal, but they are important to a lot of little towns because they keep the town on the map. They give people a reason to visit.
They promote community solidarity, cohesiveness. They remind people of their heritage. They give everybody an opportunity to think back or think about why their ancestors came.
They remind people why the town is special and you can't measure that with economics.