Following the cancellation of fairs throughout the state this summer due to the coronavirus pandemic, Rep. Josh Harder is hoping a new bill he introduced this week will help alleviate some of their economic strain and keep them afloat until next year.
During a virtual round table discussion held via Zoom on Thursday, Harder announced the Protecting Fairs During Coronavirus Act — a legislative effort that would create an emergency grant program to help offset the massive revenue losses experienced by fairs this year. Californians throughout the state generate approximately $3.5 billion in economic impact each year by attending the fair.
Locally, the Stanislaus County Fair boasted an attendance of over 260,000 in 2019. After announcing in April that the annual event in Turlock would be canceled, however, the fair has issued layoff notices to most of its employees and is in danger of operating at a deficit by October if no action is taken.
The Protecting Fairs During Coronavirus Act would establish a $5 billion federal grant program available for both 2020 and 2021. States would be able to apply for aid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and then distribute the funds to fairs in their state.
“We’re doing this because fairs are really important,” said Harder. “They’re really important to me; they’re really important to our economy and to our entire community. It’s one of the best things we do in the Central Valley … fairs can really have a lifelong impact on kids and families.”
Communities with Fairs rely on their annual events as economic drivers which provide jobs, create fundraising opportunities and attract tourism. The Stanislaus County Fairgrounds serve as the heartbeat of the county, enabling emergency services and hosting community events all while promoting agriculture. The endless educational opportunities the fair provides for students through 4-H and the Future Farmers of America, like the livestock shows and auctions, have been forced online this year, and local nonprofits that typically make most of their revenue at the fair are struggling to make ends meet.
“Like every fair across the state, we are looking outside the box at how to keep supporting our communities,” said Stanislaus County Fair CEO Matt Cranford, pointing to the organization’s work to secure Personal Protective Equipment for local healthcare professionals. “The nonprofits look to us to find ways to fundraise…these nonprofits have lost their major source of revenue, so we’re seeing that economic impact and that social impact on playgrounds, on youth activities and other social movements that the Lions Club and the Rotary Club put out.
“Economically, locally we’re feeling the pinch…it’s definitely a tough environment and we’re doing all we can to keep it going.”
Angelica Anguiano, former Stanislaus County Fair Board of Directors Finance Chair, shared that the organization has only been able to operate this long with zero revenue coming in thanks to the first federal aid package and the Friends of the Fair Foundation, created to raise funds locally when the state slashed its budget funding for fairs in 2011.
The Stanislaus County Fair had to pay companies who had already completed work in preparation for the fair this year despite the event being canceled, and has also returned thousands of dollars in rental deposits back to organizations and companies that can no longer host their events at the fairgrounds. Now, the money from the foundation has run out and Anguiano warned that the fair would be “in the red” by October.
Both Anguiano and Cranford applauded Harder’s bill.
“Without this bill going forward and making it through, our fair will likely not survive,” Anguiano said.
Despite the trillions in relief already spent by the federal government during the coronavirus pandemic, Harder is hopeful that the fair industry can receive a bailout just as airlines and hotels were previously given. As Washington mulls over a second coronavirus stimulus package, Harder hopes the Protecting Fairs during Coronavirus Act can be included in the conversation.
Because after all, he said, there’s “nothing more American than apple pies and county fairs.”
“We’ve already done targeted COVID response packages for airlines and other industries that were hard hit, but fairs are a huge economic driver especially among more rural areas like ours, and that money is invested back into this community,” Harder said. “So, I think the $5 billion number is a bargain to make sure that places like the Stanislaus County Fair survive and provide the experiences like the ones you’ve heard today.”