Fairs are local “economic engines”: not just about cotton candy

By Brian Dahle

We don’t ask Caltrans to hold bake sales so it can repair highways. We don’t force the Port of Long Beach to sell raffle tickets to buy new cargo cranes. California recognizes that the critical backbones of commerce are worth the public’s support, that our tax dollars repay rich dividends when they invest in the infrastructure that supports and generates business.

And yet, state agencies that have been critical commercial hubs for more than a century, that generate some $3 billion in annual business and support more than 25,000 full-time jobs, these days are keeping the lights on with tri-tip barbecues and community pledge drives.

What are we talking about? California’s fairs and expositions.

In 2011, at the worst of the state’s budget crisis, the Legislature eliminated funding for the Division of Fairs and Expositions. This arm of the California Department of Food and Agriculture oversaw and promoted the 78 fairs—from small fairs in Tulelake and Bishop to the California Exposition—and provided critical base funding to the smaller rural fairs.

The result of this cutback? Fairs have laid off staff. They’ve slashed maintenance—a short-term economy we know all too well will bite us in the long run. They’ve spun off management to volunteer-driven community groups, whose members have an inspiring enthusiasm but operate on shoestring budgets that leave fair operations at risk of abrupt collapse.

Despite these efforts, at least one fair, the San Joaquin County Fair, has been canceled for 2014. More are almost certain to follow if something doesn’t change.

And even as the state has eliminated funding for the fairs, they remain public agencies, subject to the state’s many regulations and restrictions—such as public meeting notice requirements, special audits, lengthy reports and unfunded inspections. As a business proposition, the fairs have all the costs and burdens of operating as a state agency but none of the critical financial support to meet their legal obligations.

With California emerging from its financial crisis, the $32 million that the state used to spend supporting fairs is entirely affordable. It’s also worth it. Californians will more than earn our money back.

Fairs aren’t just cotton candy and coin-tossing contests on the midway. They are serious business.

The most recent economic report from the Division of Fairs and Expositions—published in 2010, and naturally the agency hasn’t had the means to update it since—says fairs generated $2.85 billion in spending, nearly $900 million in wages and $127 million in state and local tax revenues.

Trade expos associated with fairs are major commercial opportunities for small businesses to directly reach huge audiences. Agricultural shows aren’t just an opportunity to swell with pride over a prize winning steer, but a critical information exchange where the latest breeding and horticultural expertise is swapped, and where the next generation learns the trade.

At a time when booming agritourism is a rare bright spot for rural economies, fairs are a critical venue for outreach, a place where average Californians have a chance to meet their farmers.

Fairs are fun. They’re educational. They build community. Those are the reasons we love them.

But they also play a vital role in California’s commerce. And that’s the reason we can’t afford to short-sightedly let them fail for lack of investment.

Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, represents the 1st Assembly District, which includes Shasta, Lassen, Nevada, Siskiyou, Modoc, Plumas and Sierra counties, and portions of Butte and Placer counties.

—From the California Farm Bureau Federation

California’s Golden Fairs #105 – NEVADA COUNTY FAIR from Huell Howser on Vimeo.

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