The county fairs, as well as the State Fair, are considered beloved institutions in the state -- which, like many others, now has a more urban population than when these fairs were established.
Tom Barnes is with the Association of Iowa Fairs and Gary Slater is the CEO of the Iowa State Fair.
Mundt: Tom, how have the county fairs in Iowa dealt with that changing demographic situation?
Barnes: You still see rural Iowa, still rural agriculture and home based, but we’re seeing an influx of urban-type fairgoers, as you would call it. And so the challenge with the county fairs over the years recently has been to get away from the assumed that they already know and get into the practice that, well, we’ve got to reeducate and we’ve got to not only reeducate, but we also have to promote, promote, promote why the county fairs exist and where we came from.
Mundt: There’s that group of people who are into 4H and who are very involved in those kinds of activities who will automatically come to the fair, but it’s getting --
Barnes: That’s right. The basis of the county fairs in Iowa is our youth, 4H and FFA. That’s why we exist, to promote their goals and encourage them to further, in Iowa hopefully, in an agricultural based or an industrial based business. But then, also, we are there to promote the heritage of where that county fair is located, whether it be a German, Czech, Irish, whatever it is, to promote the heritage of the community that the county fair is based out of.
Mundt: Gary, is there some symbiotic relationship that exists between the county fairs and the Iowa State Fair that goes even deeper than 4H, which is one of those underpinnings?
Slater: There certainly are. It takes a very strong county fair backbone throughout Iowa, and I think that keeps the Iowa State Fair healthy, because you’re feeding all of those winners to the Iowa State Fair, both in 4H and FFA. But also, it is the showcase at the end of the fair season, if you will, to have a grandiose style. And it’s in Des Moines. You know, people like to come all over the state to finish the summer with the Iowa State Fair. And we think the agriculture really is the backbone of the Iowa State Fair as well. No matter how urban our population shift goes, it’s going to always be popular. In fact, I maintain that people see less of domestic animals because of all the zoos and places that they can see exotic animals. So it’s a showcase for Iowa’s agriculture.
Mundt: So you don’t see a kind of demographic shift or at least one that causes you concern because of the general interest nature of the fair?
Slater: I think it even helps us because we can showcase agriculture at its best at the Iowa State Fair.
Mundt: Financially, how is the Iowa State Fair doing?
Slater: The Iowa State Fair is healthy. Very well. With good weather, we have good fairs, and we’ve had that. A little warm this past year.
Mundt: Hot might be the word for it.
Slater: Okay, hot. But we still had a good fair, within 10 percent of our attendance of the previous year and still over a million people. Financially we are healthy and continue to renewal at the Iowa State Fair in renovation of buildings and new programs.
Mundt: Tom, the county fairs, are they in pretty good financial shape too?
Barnes: Real good financial shape. The fairs have had a nice influx of younger board members, which have seen the focus. The Association of Iowa Fairs has been very diligent with the state legislature. We receive a stipend from the state legislature that’s distributed to the county fairs for capital improvements. And you’ll see the county fairs every year spending physical improvements to the grounds with the help of the state funding.
Last year the county fairs received $10,000 from the state and, in turn, has spent another $29,000 on average. Last year about $4 million was spent on country fairgrounds last year on capital improvements. So every year you see that progress. You see new restrooms and you see new livestock barns. You see new community centers being built with the help of the state with that seed money, and the fairs are grasping that. The energy is there.
The younger board members that are joining these county fair boards are seeing the mission. The older fair board members are seeing that, hey, this is starting to work, and you see this rejuvenation. Last year 2.4 million people attended the county fairs in Iowa, which is a pretty good number of people, which is about a $210-million economic impact on the State of Iowa, just in the county fairs.
Mundt: It’s exciting to see that kind of transition, I think, in leadership that allows the fairs to remain vital.
Barnes: It is very, very important these days that we focus on the youth in taking over our leadership role. In our conference coming up in December, the Association is focusing on youth involvement, whether it be participation entertainment-wise or participation in our youth boards. It’s the focus of the fair industry right now across the United States. I’m getting up there where we’re going to need some help. I can’t do things like I used to at a county fair, but the younger people can, and we need to look to those younger people.