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 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 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.
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, N.C. State Fair manager Kent Yelverton said. The annual event started more than 150 years ago, and the last time it was canceled was during World War II. Before that, it had not been canceled since the Civil War.
“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.
According to Yelverton, the N.C. State Fair welcomes an annual average of 1 million guests.
The cancellation of the Mountain State Fair near Asheville is estimated to have a similar economic impact, about $2 million, WNC Agricultural Center manager Matt Buchanan said.
“For us, we are a self-supporting agency and event, so it is a big impact to our budget,” he said.
No figures were available on the economic cost of the cancellation of the Caldwell County Agricultural Fair, normally held in mid-September.
County government, at least, will not feel a pinch from lost tax revenues at the fair, County Manager Stan Kiser said.
That’s because Caldwell County collects just 2 cents off every dollar spent at the fair, Kiser said, which means that even if the fair were to have sales of $1 million, the county would only see $20,000 in tax revenue, not much of a splash in a county budget that has hovered around $84 million in recent years.
“We’re not talking about big bucks,” Kiser said. “I’ve never looked on it as a big economic opportunity for the county.”
But what it does bring is publicity and community spirit, both of which Kiser said are valuable in their own right and can often translate to economic benefits further down the road.
The annual fair draws guests from beyond Caldwell County. Visiting a county fair and enjoying the atmosphere and culture on display is a quick way to get a taste of a community. This type of publicity encourages outsiders to return to Caldwell County later — to shop, eat, maybe even to live — and brings the community together in a way that Kiser said is priceless.
“There are some things that are worth more than the money,” he said. “A lot of fairs and festivals are done for a sense of community, a sense of encouragement, much more than to give money to the local government.”
News-Topic reporter Garrett Stell contributed to this story. A longer version of this story can be found on the website of Carolina Public Press, https://carolinapublicpress.org/