With Oregon State Fair canceled, millions in income lost, events scrapped

The Oregon State Fair draws several hundred thousand visitors each year and this drone view in 2019 shows the colorful mix of rides and booths. Salem’s economy will lose millions from the cancellation of the 2020 fair. (Oregon State Fair Council photo)

There will be no home brew or wine competitions.

No demolition derby.

No funnel cakes.

The summer-ending ritual of going to the Oregon State Fair and flushing money into the Salem economy is gone for 2020.

The decision came quickly last week, but not easily.

Gov. Kate Brown told the state that large gatherings wouldn’t be permitted until September at the earliest.

Among those listening were members of the Oregon State Fair Council and fair executives.

“When this all came down, we just said, ‘Ok, this is what we need to do’ and by 4 p.m., we were sending out information to our sponsors, fairgoers and vendors,” said Kim Grewe-Powell, fair deputy director.

Following the governor’s order, the 2020 Oregon State Fair, which included six special events, 17 on-going attractions, seven stages and 17 competitions, was canceled. The fair was scheduled to run Aug. 28 to Sept. 7.

Looking at the fairgrounds now, one can almost hear the echoes of carnival rides and peals of laughter as people have enjoyed the fair’s traditions for 156 years. 

The state fair draws approximately 300,000 visitors each year and is estimated to generate 400 jobs and $36.5 million for the Oregon economy, according to a 2016 study by Gruen Gruen + Associates.

One of the vendors hit hardest by the decision was the carnival company Rainier Amusement LLC, a family business based in Portland that goes back three generations. Crystal Hoss co-owns the company with her husband. They provide rides to fairs like the Zipper and Tilt-A-Whirl. This year’s fair would have included two new rides: Pirate Ship and Zero Gravity.  

Rainier Amusement typically books 40 fairs and festivals between March and October, but the Oregon State Fair is its biggest customer. State fairgoers spend approximately $4 million at the carnival’s attractions each year, which is about 19% of the total $22 million of on-site spending. 

“It’s a huge gross income for our business,” says Hoss. “It’s not only just us. That money also goes back into the community,” she said.

Hoss said her company hires local teens (for many, it’s their first job) and adults who take time off from their regular jobs to work at the carnival during the fair to make extra money. Rainier also rents portable toilets, dumpsters, generators and pays for essential workers like state police and local security. 

“A lot of people don’t realize that trickle-down effect,” says Hoss. “Sixty to 75% of our company’s gross income goes back to Oregon State Fair, back into the community, to pay all those vendors.”

But during the coronavirus pandemic, Crystal Hoss said what keeps her up at night is the stress of how to pay the company’s bills. She worries about her 75-100 employees plus her additional local hires and hopes that the COVID-19 relief grants and loans she applied for will come through.

The Arctic Blast roller coaster stands quiet at the state fairgrounds in Salem on May 12, 2020. The 2020 Oregon State Fair was recently cancelled due to COVID-19. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

But it’s a waiting game. The carnival company hasn’t had business since the end of season last fall and is facing an entire year or more of staying dark. Hoss also worries about the wider impact of canceling this year’s state fair.

“All the people that that fair brings into town shop, buy groceries, eat at local restaurants. People come from the south, the east side of the state and use lodging, campgrounds, Air BnBs. They depend on that influx,” Hoss said. “I’m more afraid of the impact of economics. Scares me what this will look like when this is all over.”

In 2016, fair-goers staying in town spent about $2.1 million. Those in town just for a day at the fair dropped another $5.7 million that year, meaning the Salem area this year will lose $8 million or more in such spending.

Grewe-Powell said that since the early days of the pandemic, the state fair council has been monitoring its effects on events and other fairs across the country. The council remained hopeful it would be possible to run the state fair since it comes at the end of summer. Early forecasts had expected the pandemic to subside substantially by then.

“But as things progressed, we discussed the possibility of the Oregon State Fair not happening and if so, how we should create a plan B or C,” she said. The council found out about the governor’s order at the same time as the rest of the public, and council members responded with mixed emotions.

“Even though the decision was made for us, it doesn’t make it any easier,” she said. “I don’t think we would have made the same decision on our own,” Grewe-Powell said.

Still, the council supports Brown’s decision. So does Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat. He said he is highly concerned about the threat to public health that the coronavirus poses.

“I think if I was on the board, I would have said, we got to do this. This thing has no mercy. That’s the monster that we’re dealing with,” Courtney said.

Courtney is deeply saddened to lose the fair this year. Not only has the senator been involved with the fair for decades as a state official, he has also been a cheeseburger judge and has competed – unsuccessfully – in the goat milking contest for nearly 15 years. Last year he finally gave it up.

“I couldn’t figure out a way to beat any of the eastern Oregonians. I couldn’t figure out how to milk a goat. I tried to talk to my goat, I tried to bond with my goat. I did everything I could to get out there early – the goat owners tried to show me – and nothing. I could never get more than just a few drops,” Courtney said.

The loss of this year’s fair is also a heartbreaker for 4,000 youth who can’t bring their animals and projects, such as arts and crafts, to the fair this year.

“4H and FFA kids, they come there and actually sleep sometimes right where their animals are. If you could see those young people where they talk to each other, from all parts of the state, I mean, isn’t that important?” Courtney asked.

Most kids in 4H and FFA log hundreds of hours of work over months on their projects and spend considerable money on their livestock to prepare for state fair competition. Many then count on getting returns on their investments from livestock sales at the fair. 

Fencing and livestock panels are stored inside of the Beef Barn at the state fairgrounds in Salem, OR on May 12, 2020. The 2020 Oregon State Fair was recently cancelled due to COVID-19. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Bart Noll of Lane County is the president of the Oregon Fairs Association, which represents all 36 county fairs plus the state fair. He said he’s concerned about those kids who got started with their beef, lamb, swine or dairy project before the lockdown. 

 “If a kid has purchased their fair animals, now the concern is what do we do with these animals?” Noll said.

In his role, Noll has a unique view of both the cultural and economic impact of the Oregon State Fair. He sees it as an event that allows an open exchange of ideas and a test market for new products.

“Fairs may be one of the best U.S. business incubators to help entrepreneurs. Fairs have been doing that function for a couple hundred years at least. There are a lot of small companies that get their start as small operators on fairgrounds somewhere,” Noll said.

But there are other elements of the state fair that are harder to value in dollars, such as the Gerry Frank Chocolate Cake Competition. Since 1959, fourth-generation Oregonian Gerry Frank of Salem has been judging an average of about 100 contestants’ chocolate cakes at the fair each year.

“It’s the longest running contest in a state fair in the country – as far as we know – 60 years!” said Frank, who turned 95 last year. “It’s been a great ride. I’ve enjoyed it tremendously. The fact that so many people find enjoyment of entering and watching.”

Steven Robert Heine loves the joy the state fair brings people. In 1988, he started the fair’s poetry contest, which he said was adopted across the country by other fairs. In recent years, Heine has judged poetry at the Oregon fair. 

“When I judge poetry, I want to experience something – even if it’s about hotcakes. I want to be able to taste them. I want a three-dimensional experience when I read poetry. Hopefully that’s what people are experiencing when they read,” Heine said.

Heine said sharing poetry is important to culture because poetry comes from the hearts of people.

“If you were a poet and you got to enter, just having hundreds of people see your poetry at the fair is a pretty big prize. It gives them a chance to share with people what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling,” he said. “The state fair is one of the few large public events where poetry can be on display.” 

A poet and author, Heine published a definitive history of the Oregon State Fair in 2006. The book traces the origin of the first fair which was held along the Clackamas River in the Oregon City area, and follows its story through the years including the three other years when the fair was canceled: 1905 because the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition was taking place in Portland that year, and in 1943 and 1944, when the fairgrounds were leased to the military for lodging during World War II.

The story of the Oregon State Fair involves resilience. The fairgrounds endured a fire in 1967 that destroyed the Commercial Building, built in 1913, and the adjoining Natural Resources Building that dated to 1891. But Oregon’s governor at the time, Tom McCall, and many groups felt the fair should go on. Time, money and tents were donated so the fair could stay open.

“Missing this year’s fair is like a diary with a missing page. You kind of wonder about it a bit. It’s just not there,” Heine said.

But in 2020, the world has new technologies like video conferencing and virtual experiences that some say could sustain some aspects of the fair. Heine thinks the poetry contest could be a virtual event – but only as a Band-Aid until next year.

“I think the virtual stuff is a way to keep interest alive. That’s all it really does,” he said. 

As for the 4H and FFA youth projects, Noll thinks perhaps an online version of the animal sales could be viable.

“Online auctions have been around for a while. The horse shows though, not sure. Is it possible to do? Virtual judging takes on a whole new character,” Noll said.

The idea of a virtual fair is something that Grewe-Powell said the council is exploring as a way to tide fairgoers over until next year, when hopefully, the pandemic is over.

“A lot of fairs are doing, like a virtual fair, to keep their patrons engaged and to look forward to it,” she said. “But we haven’t decided yet.”

Gerry Frank of Salem awards yet another ribbon during the 2019 judging for his Chocolate Cake Contest. He has judged it for 60 years but will miss this year as the Oregon State Fair has been canceled. (Oregon State Fair Archives photo)


PHOTOS: The Oregon State Fairgrounds in photos – then and now

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