The Clay County Fair, now postponed until 2021, would have been at risk of not living up to its reputation as “The World’s Greatest County Fair” had it been held this year.
That realization, combined with fairgoer, staff, volunteer and vendor safety issues during the COVID-19 pandemic, eventually led fair officials to decide it was best to not hold a Clay County Fair in 2020. The decision was officially announced Thursday.
At a press conference Thursday, Clay County Fair CEO and Manager Jeremy Parson said the 2020 fair, were it to happen, simply would not have been recognizable.
“It just would have not been the same,” he said. “It would have been a fair without many of your favorites.”
Parsons gave a few examples of how the 2020 fair would have been a limited experience:
Free entertainment tents would have been half-capacity. Exhibit buildings would have been half empty to allow vendors and fairgoers to social distance. Some grandstand ticket buyers would have to be moved. There wouldn’t be spectators allowed in the indoor arena.
“All of those things just would have created an event that would not be the World’s Greatest County Fair,” Parsons said. “And when you can’t keep people safe, when you can’t live up to your reputation, you really have to think hard about why are we doing this. That’s really what it boils down to.”
Fairgoer safety was the most obvious concern as COVID-19 continues to impact many events throughout the country, including the Iowa and Minnesota state fairs, which will not happen this year.
Parsons pointed to the mission of the Clay County Fair, which he said states in part that the fair must provide a safe, family atmosphere.
“The key word in 2020 is safe,” he said. “After lots of attempts, and plans, and modifications, and proposals, we could not find a way to put on a safe fair that our fairgoers would enjoy, quite frankly.”
Parsons addressed the sentiment heard frequently from some nowadays that it should be a personal choice whether or not they attend events.
“I think it’s easy for people to say, ‘Well, if you don’t feel safe, you should just stay home.’ You hear that a lot in today’s world,” Parsons said. “There’s some truth to that, you know, it’s personal responsibility. That’s easy for the fairgoer to make that decision, but for our 1,000 employees and volunteers, that’s not so easy. And, in fact, based on some survey work we did, about 30% of our employees and our volunteers told us, you know, we love the fair, but we don’t feel safe working it this year. That’s a gap that we would have been challenged with.”
The fair may also have had to plan for fewer fairgoers. In a survey put out through the fair’s email list and other partners, 31% of respondents said they didn’t know when they would feel safe attending large events again. Of dedicated fairgoers who took the survey – those who have attended the fair each of the last three years – about 50% said they planned to attend the 2020 event.
“That’s concerning,” Parsons said. “It’s hard to put on a fair financially at 50%.”
Limited events still planned
This is the fifth time in the Clay County Fair’s history that it has not been held. The other years were from 1942 to 1945 due to World War II.
Some events will still happen this year, including 4H and FFA youth programs and livestock shows that Iowa State University Extension and Outreach will plan for later this fall.
The two auto races that were scheduled to occur during the fair will also go on.
Parsons said fair officials are looking at other options for putting on some sort of smaller experience.
“We’re also looking at some other ways that we can present some fair-type activities,” Parsons said. “Again, they won’t be the fair, but just some opportunities, especially to help out our local nonprofits.”
The impact of not having a fair in 2020
Last year, 14 local nonprofits generated about $500,000 at the Clay County Fair, Parsons said. Without the fair, those organizations will be “hurting,” he added.
No fair could create complications for the city of Spencer and Clay County.
“The fair generates a portion – a large portion – of hotel/motel tax, local option sales tax in September for those nine days,” Parsons said. “We understand it has an impact on the city and county. It has an impact on the fair itself. This is three-fourths of our annual income. We have to be wise and we have to make very smart choices to put on the fair in 2021 that everyone has come to love and deserve.”
The local economy in general could feel the effects of not having 300,000 people attend the fair this year.
Parsons said the latest economic impact study the fair had commissioned in 2015 showed that the event has about a $6 million impact on the local economy.
He said the fair is looking at some events, perhaps food-related, that could at least help nonprofits recoup some of the lost revenues.
“We know it won’t replace the fair, but still something to give people a little bit of essence,” Parsons said.
Grandstand acts rescheduling
The fair is working to reschedule acts for the 2021 fair. Some have already been rescheduled, Parsons said.
“The first of those announcements will come next week,” he added.
The fair will also be working with vendors who were scheduled to be at the 2020 fair and move those plans forward to 2021.
From here, the 2021 fair is now the focus.
“We’re going to full-speed move our attention to maybe some things that we can do, but definitely the 2021 fair is where we turn full speed ahead,” Parsons said. “In the words of Winston Churchill: ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going,’ and that’s where we’re going.”
Featured image: Clay County Fair and Events CEO and Manager Jeremy Parsons speaks to media Thursday at a press conference to answer questions about the 2020 Clay County Fair’s postponement.