County Fair in Doubt

The Thoughtful Skeeballer

Ticket sales were down this year at the Albemarle County Fair, which wrapped up yesterday—they sold 11,000 tickets, rather than the 16,000 that they generally sell. Though pretty hot (which was nothing a little lemonade couldn’t help with), the weather was otherwise sunny and nice this time around, so it’s not clear to what to attribute the decline in attendance. After a series of rained-out fairs for some years, they’ve finally had a run of dry weather in the past few years, but it hasn’t been enough. Adam Rhew reports for NBC 29 that fair organizers are thinking about running it only every other year, since they think they may have actually lost money this year.

35 thoughts on “County Fair in Doubt”

  1. No, it wasn’t just a little hot, it was SCORCHING hot, especially on Saturday when I went. So hot that more than a little lemonade would be needed – only a bath in a vat of frosty lemonade would have helped. Those of us with little kids (the fair’s target audience) just don’t want to schlep them around in the roasting heat and humidity. Maybe I missed it, but I would have loved a tent with a fan and a few benches that was free from the smell of animal poop. Or even just a few strategically placed benches or picnic tables with umbrellas – somewhere to sit down for a moment out of the blazing sun.

    I am completely baffled as to why the organizers thought that moving the fair from late August, where there is a chance of cooler weather, to the hottest week of the year was such a great idea. And also, aren’t fairs supposed to take place closer to harvest time? What’s the point of having produce-growing contests when we are just now picking our first tomatoes of the season? And what about opening earlier on Saturday and Sunday so we can visit when the temps are cooler and the sun is not as direct, without having to make the little ones stay up past their bedtime to attend on a weeknight?

    I’m a lifelong Albemarle resident, and love the idea of the county fair. I would love for it to continue to be a viable and pleasurable entertainment option.

  2. It’s not clear to what to attribute the decline in attendance? If they want a free clue, it doesn’t take a Mensa candidate to understand it’s directly related to the current fuel prices. A lot of people just don’t have the money to spare now. From the statistics above, 11,000 vs 16,000 tickets, it appears about a third of the local population just didn’t have the money to spare. And we haven’t seen the worst of it yet.

  3. I’m guessing that the fair’s timing was changed because it used to coincide with the start of school, which wasn’t convenient for a lot of people. This year’s fair took place when a lot of people were out of town.

    What would the best date be?

    Maybe in September, when it’s cooler and people aren’t as frenzied with the first weeks of school? That would also space it out a bit further from the Dogwood Festival — seemingly two different events, but it’s pretty much the same rides and even the same carnies.

  4. I suspect the timing, with the fair coinciding with the tax-free shopping weekend not to mention a very hot time of the year, was just bad. I would guess a lot of parents went out this weekend and spent quite a bit buying pencils and tissues for little Johnny and all 25 of his classmates and just didn’t have/want to spend the extra money for the fair. County fairs can get expensive quickly, especially if you have to buy lots of bottled water to stay hydrated.

    I’ve never been to the Albemarle County fair and would love to go sometime, but the high gas prices and tough economic times aren’t just something they talk about on the news. Those factors combined with the very hot weather and my desire to never have heat exhaustion again kept me at home this year. If there was a fair in September or October when the leaves are starting to change and the weather is getting cooler, I’d be all over it.

  5. We were all set to go on Saturday, but looked at the weather forecast and concluded it would be a better day to go on Sunday. Less chance of rain, and slightly lower temperatures. We got there at 1:30, and thankfully we went up to introduce our daughter to the animals before they all went back to their respective farms.

    I second Mama’s comment that it would have been nice to have had some place where you could sit and eat in the shade for a moment. We didn’t figure out that you could sit under the music tent until after we polished off our cheese fries and fruit cups.

  6. We paid a couple of visits to the music tent during our time there in the afternoon. With the enormous fans, and the total shade, it was a great place to cool off, as it is every year.

    The date was moved because for something like five years it rained the entire time, and there was talk of ending the fair entirely. So they finally figured they’d need to pick a hotter time of year.

  7. They moved it I understand because the opening always seemed to be at a a time when tropical storms hit the area.One year a tent collapsed in a storm.
    Who knows why the decline, maybe its the weather , gas prices, or maybe the fair didnt market itself adequately. I have heard people say they didnt seem to do a lot of advertising this year.
    Or maybe its because the area is becoming so urbanized, that something like a county fair, with its bucolic connotations. is appealing to fewer people. Shame if that is the case.

  8. To many people, the county fair means “rides”.

    I’ve worked the ticket booth every year for the last 4-5 years, and the questions about rides, ride tickets, ride discounts, etc., outnumber all other questions by maybe an 8-1 ratio. Dollar take for the rides runs about 3x the gate receipts on an average day.

    Which is why I think Demopublican’s analysis is correct. Cost for a family with 2 adults 2 kids for a fair outing this year would have been, roughly, $20 admission $30 rides (if adults just watch; based on discounted $15 all-day-ride ticket; actual cost could be higher) $30 food drink gas cost. Round off to $100 as a ballpark figure.

    We definitely noticed fewer large families from (subjective evaluation) lower-income demographics than in past years.

    And in a few cases, looking at the expressions on the faces of the ones who did show up when I totalled up the entrance cost, I really really wished I could have let them in free.

  9. hmm, throw in some ASCII plus signs where it makes sense in the previous post, Waldo’s blog eats them it seems. :-)

  10. Several reasons for the Fair changing the dates, most of which have been hit upon already. The rain was a big one, but most of the animals at the Fair are raised by 4H kids. For a long time the Fair started about the same time as school. It was difficult for the 4Hr’s to show their animals and start a week of school. when the Fair looked at another dates earlier in the summer months it had to consider the competing area fairs (Madison, Greene, Louisa, Orange) and not choose a date that would directly impact those Fairs. At the time the only open date that the ride vendor could accomodate was this time frame. As noted above the rides are an important draw. So between the rain, the 4H kids and making sure the Fair had good rides the Fair ended up with this date. To make it worst, the Fair lost the Fiddlers Contest (one of the top draws) because the new Fair date competed directly with a bluegrass event in Galaxy VA. the mecca for fiddler players.

  11. Heat…heat…and heat…with three young children it was almost unbearable. We lasted 2 hours, most of that time spent under the tent listening to the Pickn’ Shack.

  12. The County Fair just happened? I never even noticed.

    Some sort of promotion would probably have helped. I don’t really get around to watching TV very often, so maybe they should start running ads on local blogs. Posters or flyers downtown would have helped, too.

  13. The main reason for the decline is that based what is going on with the economy in general. People aren’t spending $ on much outside of the basics. It’s a spiral effect with gas, etc. The mindset of most folks is to hold onto every extra penny..JC

  14. I had no clue the fair was going on. I don’t get local channels right now (technological issues, not that I watch much TV) and I stopped subscribing to the paper last year after two years of the deliveryperson’s inability to actually not deliver while we had a vacation hold in place (burglary risk). *shrugs* Given the heat, I can’t say I’d enjoy schlepping a toddler through a crowd.

    I also come from a much smaller town. Our fairgrounds were sizeable, but entry was free. That free fair is always mobbed each year–it’s very popular. There are events within the fair which cost $, but it’s all affordable.

    Many localities these days have dedicated fairgrounds which offer services year-round. Many have RV campsites available for a reasonable fee during non-fair/non-rally events. I confess to not having looked too hard to figure out where the fair is held here simply because I figured it was a fly-by-night operation given the lack of permanence to the facilities. Is there an actual permanent fairground hiding away in the hills somewhere? If so, why isn’t the county making money off the facilities year-round?

    I assume the fair can’t be held later in the year since it’s a 4-H fair. Entries must be judged and available for the State Fair, right?

  15. Mama’s comments are spot on. A county fair is supposed to be all about the harvest and the Harvest hasn’t really come in yet. Plus it’s a bit hot this time of year. I think a move later would be much better.

    The food venders are mostly professional fair sorts, and same with most items for sale. They should start a dialogue with the farmers markets to try and get some of the people that normally vend there to come to the fair. After all, it’s just sad when the saturday markets have better food, merchandise and examples of local produce than the fair does. One year they at least had a mexican food vender, to add some variety to all the people selling questionable sausage and funnel cake.

    Jocelyn, there’s not a dedicated space per se owned by the fair, Bundoran farm donates the space each year.

  16. The County doesn’t support the Fair. Other than a couple of yearly donations of $10K each. That is a misconception of many folks. The Fair is completely apart from the County. In some cases the County hinders the Fair more than helps. The Fair has talked for years about having a permanant site, but there really has been no way to pull the trigger on obtaining a site large enough for what is needed to set up and run the Fair.

  17. Oh, given all the local music talent, I’d think they could do much better (For that matter just the musicians in Batesville alone…) Nelson Counties Summer festival does really well in this regard.

    It’s also a shame that they can’t do wine tasting, as that’s a pretty big part of our county agriculture.

  18. Waldo, we would not have attended the fair if not for the posting you made a couple of weeks ago. I don’t think I would have noticed otherwise.

  19. We’ve past that fair several times over the years and it just seems like more low-end Carnival stuff. We’d be much more interested if it centered around farming (methods, animals, equipment) and the actual harvest for sale. Admission would be free or very minimal, with revenues generated from produce sales, prepared foods from said produce, animal rides and interaction, and possibly also from equipment vendors showcasing their wares (John Deere et al). Also, cooler weather and/or many cool places to rest would help enormously.

    I’ve been to rocking ‘special event’ fairs and festivals in Europe that are big money makers and are really fun and not particularly expensive, since it combines food, dancing and other entertainment that’s competitive with other venues. Of course, there’s the issue of no-alcohol issues in the US that’s always a drain on adult interest). Maybe the organizers need some fresh ideas? JMHO.

  20. I like the county fair but holding it in July just isn’t normal. I’ve barely got ripe tomatoes by then! I don’t get into a fair mood until later in August.

  21. I can’t believe you guys and girls continue to make all sorts of excuses for the low turnout this year. Read David’s reply again, it’s straight from the horse’s mouth. MONEY! There’s now dual income families making $100,000 a year living paycheck to paycheck. 25% of the $100,000 is gone in withholdings before you even get your paychecks. Heating fuel, electric (and A/C), water and sewer, satellite cable, high speed internet and telephone now run $800 to $1,000 a month for the average family each month. Gasoline or diesel fuel in two or three cars or trucks takes another $500 a month. Then along comes $2,000 to $3,000 real estate taxes — twice a year. And you better plan on $800 to $1,000 a month for groceries and other items around the home. Now toss in a monthly mortgage of anywhere from $700, $,1000, $1,500, and up to “other ungodly amounts” I have seen around Charlottesville and Albemarle lately. I might go to the fair next year if I get the yearly income of my family up to $200,000.

  22. Surrounding counties with more traditonal & successful fairs should be sought as research examples if Albemarle County hopes to attract interest to its current carnival-type fair event.

    A bi-annual fair: The roots of the “fair” are based in agricultural values and celebration of harvest. The suggestion that Albemarle County hold its fair bi-annually, to me, is a clear display of an establishment in need of vision, leadership, priority and real values.

    Albemarle County’s identity with, or even its indifference to, its own local agriculture community should be called into question. I’d suggest that the Albemarle County Fair organizing committee make the trip to Rockingham County like my people do each year… the pants off of Albemarle’s carnie-and-vendor show regardless of weather conditions, gas prices or planetary malignment.

    Many (if not all) surrounding counties have permanent, established fairgrounds. Why couldn’t Albemarle create a permanent fairground in it’s population & geographic center (e.g. on the outskirts of Charlottesville)?

  23. Creating a permanant Fairgrounds takes money. The land isn’t cheap around here. The land being used now is donated. The infrastructure (underground water/electric lines) that is there has been in place for more than 10 years. To recreate that would cost thousands. Believe me, I have looked into the costs. Most of the area Fairgrounds around here have been in place for longer than Albemarle’s Fair. Albemarle has only been in place about 26 years. Rockingham is held as the model everyone wants to be. BUT, their Ag community is 10X bigger around there than it is in Alb. Albemarle County School system stopped offering FFA (Future Farmers of America) years ago. Even if the Fair could stay where it is now, the Qroe folks would rather not have permanant buildings. There once was talk of a barn to help with the animals, but the tents will continue to be a yearly expense. The costs would go down w/out rides but I strongly suspect that attendance would plummet also. Worst than this year.

  24. The reason it did not do well was publicity. They did little to none. I did not hear one radio station mention it (although I don’t listen to WINA, so those morning idiots could have done it). I also saw nothing in any local papers until the DP cited numbers were down going into the weekend. I spoke to a number of people who have attended it religiously over the years, and none knew it was happening. So next time at least send out press releases and public service announcements (it counts as a 501c3).

  25. boxer4h,

    Here’s the thing though, almost every farmers market I go to is packed. From that perspective, I’d think a festival centered around the same values and community should be huge. The thing is I’ve never seen any of those folks I see at the markets at the fair. It seems to me there is a disconnect and a need for a radical shift in thinking about the fair, especially if its gotten to the point that it’s losing money, and all about the rides. It’s not that there aren’t exciting things in agriculture going on in our county, but they just aren’t being represented very well by the fair. (Heck, given all the land getting land-use tax credits, Albemarle must be just FULL of farmers!)

    Seriously though, it doesn’t seem like the agriculture displays are representative or diverse enough. I was actually interested in purchasing some quail this year, and not interested in chickens. Past years, they had all kinds of birds, and this year there wasn’t much of anything. Maybe that’s just the people that came, but it feels like a larger trend of the ag. displays going downhill.

    Seems to me, throw in a wine tasting (probably our biggest agricultural product) and more good local music from younger bands. Those two changes alone would have a pretty huge affect.

  26. I will echo comments regarding the unreasonable cost of attending the fair relative to value received. Taking a family of four can easily exceed the conservative estimate of $100. Given the layout, I’ve had to walk my kids past dozens of vendors — schilling more opportunities to spend money — before we could see so much as a goat. The animals are penned at the far northern end of the fair, which means after viewing the livestock and maybe letting the kids pet an alpaca, it is neceassary to walk past the same vendors en route to the carny rides, which are sketchy at best. I don’t care how frequently those rides are inspected; take a good look at the rust coating on the nuts and bolts at critical stress points and, I suspect, most parents would be leery of letting their little ones go for a spin at roughly $3 for a 2-minute ride.

    Tilt the emphasis more toward ag events and education, and I would be more inclined to drop coin. The state fair in Richmond (Sept. 25-Oct. 8) is a nice event, with a strong emphasis on agriculture, at the right time of year.

    But with the current arrangement in Southern Albemarle County, I’d rather roll over to Ashland north of Richmond and spend $200 on a day at King’s Dominion — it may not be the greatest value, but that’s all relative…to me, a clean amusement park delivers better value than the county fair, where only the bravest souls will ingest the smoked sausage and fried catfish nuggets.

    Given local news about food preparation at longstanding Charlottesville restaurants, you gotta pause and realize that the flies you see buzzing around the animal tents, settling here and yon on dung, are the same hungry flies buzzing around your platter of fried fish & curly fries.

    Caveat lector indeed.





  27. Lonnie,
    good comments all. On the part about having more animal vendors, it is tough getting people to bring their animals to the Fairgrounds all week. The State has regulations and the County has regulations and then you are relying on volunteers to take care of your animals if you can’t drive down there to care for them yourself. I don’t remember from my time on the Fair board, but I believe that the rides make or break the Fair. Low ride attendance, not a good year. To have enough electric and water for the week, that revenue is required. I would encourage anyone who wants to see the Fair continue to volunteer and participate in the planning for next year. Fresh ideas and new blood may be just what they need.

  28. I’m really enjoying the constructive criticism of this. Lonnie, I think your comparison to the Farmer’s Market is really spot-on. Based on the t-shirts and hats I see at the respective locations, there seem to be a significantly larger number of Virginia Tech fans than UVa fans at the fair than at the Farmer’s Market. I think that says a lot about the disparate demographics of the two events, and perhaps that will provide a point of access to solve this problem of attendance.

  29. They had the fair already. Who knew? Apparently not that many people. I don’t remember seeing any big banners across downtown streets or any big in my face advertisements. Though I’ve been in workaholic mode lately so maybe I just missed it all. Darn, I was going to stop by too.

  30. Fair organizers may want to look at Maine’s Common Ground Country Fair, which has been a great success story, focusing on rural traditions and crafts, agriculture, dancing, singing, games and healthy food. They have a draft horse exhibition, sheep dog demonstrations, the “Harry S Truman Memorial Manure Toss” and a fleece show. In short, good, old-fashioned rural Americanfun, without the carnies and the “games of chance”. This could be a model for a revamped Albemarle County Fair that would draw from all over the state.

    The Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association (VICFA) might be a good partner in helping to plan a transition to a real Albemarle-centric fair.

  31. The State Fair in September is a much better deal price-wise and at a less-hot time. The last time I went to the Alb. County Fair some ride wires on the ground were sparking.

  32. Harry Landers and Lonnie are genius. If I were king, I would try it as a semi-hippie fair of Central Va., with some elements of the since that is what does well here and no one else around here is doing it. And I would move it in town, preferably on top of the McIntire Park golf course. Plenty of hookups, and closer to the population center (which is somewhere around Fashion Square Mall, I would reckon).

    Alb. County Fair is not the only one having problems. Last week the DP did a story on the Louisa fair, which is ag only and runs on the brink. The fire dept. has an amusement fair July 4.

    South of here, Price Edward, Buckingham and others combine for the Five County Fair. Maybe that one is is working ok?

  33. The Greene County fair is this week. It has both agricultural and rides and had great attendance last year. With the cool weather this week, it should be a good time. We’re probably going tonight with the kids.

    The Orange county fair was a couple of weeks ago and it does well too. It has no rides, but lots of vendors and more agricultural exhibits than the other local fairs. Part of the draw may be the location at Montpelier and its set in a small woods and has lots of shade.

    Finally, the Fall Fiber fest is in another two months. It’s also in Orange and has no rides but does have sheep dog trials and an unusual set of vendors.

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