Fairs expect big crowds this summer

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Jul. 16—After a pandemic-induced hiatus, fairs in the are returning this summer and, organizers said, folks are excited.

Jason Craig, secretary of the Delaware County Fair Board, said there's "big-time anticipation" for this year's fair, Aug. 16 through 21.

"I couldn't walk into the grocery store without getting asked, 'Is there going to be a fair?'," he said.

"Everyone is always excited for the fair anyway, and when you take a year out where you don't have one, that just built it up even more. Watching trends in other states, I think all New York State fairs are going to have record numbers. It's going to be a really big week, hopefully, and the excitement has certainly built over a year, and we know everyone is ready to come out and enjoy these events."

The Walton fairgrounds, Craig said, typically see 70,000 visitors through fair week from "a lot of New York City and Sullivan, Ulster, Delaware and Broome counties."

"People are reaching out and I just feel like people want to get out," Lisa Jones, manager of the Otsego County Fair, said. "They miss the fairs and want to come out and see them, regardless of what we have, so even though some stuff is in short supply, there's going to be a lot of people. Our presale ticket sales are already more than we've ever done before."

"I think everybody wants to get out now and feel something normal," Rhonda Barriger, president of the nine-member, all-volunteer Afton Fair Board, said. "I think the cotton candy and candied apples and fried dough and sack races — it's going to bring people that feeling of normal they haven't had in over a year." The 132nd Afton Fair took place July 8 through 11, with "record-breaking crowds on Friday and Saturday," Barriger said.

But planning post-pandemic festivities, representatives said, proved tricky.

In Afton, Barriger said, fair directors had mere weeks to plan.

"May 26 is when I found out we could have the fair," she said. "Normally, we would have a year to plan, so we had to do everything in high mode. What we normally would have a year to do, we were trying to do in six weeks. So, we were down there working every day."

Barriger named finding and insuring vendors, along with readying the fairgrounds, chief among the challenges.

"It's all been a hurdle," she said. "From printing flyers to trying to finalize entertainment and get contracts singed — and some of the acts are hurting for help as much as we are — to a lack of volunteers. Pretty much, we were running the same schedule we would normally run, but there are things we weren't able to do because they required contracts and insurance on events well in advance. You've got to try to find insurance, and you have to shop around for the policies.

"We didn't have a fair last year, so the grounds didn't have a lot of the normal prep, so it was even harder this year because of the fact that a lot of that didn't get done," Barriger continued. "But you roll with it."

Jones said, while the 15 Otsego County Fair directors faced similar challenges, including gaps in the supply chain, plans for a 2021 fair have been underway "since the beginning of the year." The Otsego County Fair will take place from Aug. 3 through 8 and typically hosts "around 40,000" from the "Albany and Saratoga area ... and Chenango, Delaware, Otsego and Schoharie counties," Jones said.

"We start (planning) when the fair closes ... but After (Gov.) Cuomo opened up the state fair, everyone knew we'd have ours, regardless," she said. "Things are actually coming together quite well. We've kind of just moved forward the 2020 schedule, because we already had contracts in place, so we honored them, but a lot of your vendors don't have the merchandise to come. We normally have five or six tractor dealers; we have three this year. And four-wheelers and ATV dealers, they just don't have the inventory to display."

Craig, too, said members of the 11-person Delaware County Fair board began planning about a year ago.

"We were hopeful since last August, but the state never really gave us any info at all, until the governor opened everything up 100%; that's when we knew for sure," he said. "We're fortunate enough that Ed Rossley, the president of our fair board, is also first vice president for the (New York) State Association of Agricultural Fairs and he's been in contact numerous times weekly with the powers that be in Albany and (the Department of) Ag and Markets, so we were getting updates as soon as he had them. We knew it was looking better every single day and it was just a matter of progressing in a positive way.

"Once we postponed the fair last year," Craig continued, "basically all our contracts were held over and a lot of ours was already in the works, so it was just a matter of tidying everything up. With COVID doing what COVID did, we did lose some vendors that went out of business or some that just can't make it because they don't have any product, but we have some new vendors coming. It might be a different look from what people are used to. We'll be following all CDC guidance and posting signs around the fair and asking people who are not vaccinated to wear masks, but other than that, with it being an open-air event, everything else will be as normal as it can be."

Craig, like Barriger, said directors have worked to balance infrastructure needs against fiscal strain.

"Fair week is our only income," he said. "When you don't have that income for a year, but you still have infrastructure improvements that need to take place and people on the payroll and maintenance staff ... it makes a huge burden on the fair. That's one reason we're really thankful everything is opening back up, because we need a great year to get us back on track.

"These fairgrounds have aging infrastructures, and ours luckily is tied into the village sewer system," Craig continued, "but over the years, that stuff just takes a beating. You're looking at bills and not knowing if you're going to be able to get the funding to pay those bills and, to this point, the fair has not been eligible for any stimulus funding. We've met with (Rep.) Antonio Delgado and are hoping to get on the list for some of the stimulus money Delaware County is getting ... to help with some of these improvements.

More noticeable changes, Craig and Jones said, will include the annual bike giveaways at the Delaware and Otsego county fairs.

"A big thing we usually do is our bike giveaway, and unfortunately we can't do that," Craig said. "We usually get all the bikes from Walmart and, the last fair, we did around 140 bikes, but this year we can't get one bike. It's a big bummer ... and that'll probably be the biggest thing (that's different)."

"It's basically the same events — rodeo, demo derby — but one event that's not happening for us is the bike giveaway, because we cannot get the bikes," Jones said. "In place of that, we're doing a huge kids' giveaway with hoverboards, tablets, PlayStations and tons and tons of toys. That is on Saturday at 1, same as the bike giveaway always was. We're giving away Power Wheels, scooters, cornhole boards — we have a lot of stuff — and that's for ages newborn to 16."

Returning to the Otsego County Fair, Jones said, will be the sensory-friendly "Think Different Day."

"We just started that in 2019, and it's where we have no sound and no lights for the rides and no overhead paging or music in the entertainment tent for two hours on Wednesday," she said. "It's a sensory day for those with special needs ... and it really went over well."

In Walton, Craig said, new attractions will include an onsite COVID-19 vaccination station.

"We're working with Delaware Valley Hospital to set up a vaccination site," he said. "It was their idea, and they came to us looking for some space and help, so we're trying to get that all worked out." Also new, Craig said, will be the availability of all grandstand tickets at the box office, not online, and a John Deere Gator 560e raffle, with funds benefiting the fair.

Throughout planning, representatives said, understanding from fairgoers has been bolstering.

"Everybody's been pretty good," Jones said. "We always tend to put things out on Facebook and see the response, and ours has been quite positive."

"It's amazing the support we got from the community," Barriger echoed. "We reached out to our sponsors, and they were very gracious; I sent the letters out after we got notification and, within a week, people were sending their sponsorships back. It was a great outpouring of sponsors. It's a small town community, and it feels good."

"We always get support from people that love the fair, but this year it's been incredible, it's just everybody," Craig said. "We are all volunteers — it's like a second job for us and some people see it, but not all do — but I feel like this year, people understand how hard it is to put on an event with all the restrictions, so they're so thankful for us dedicating our time to it to make it happen so they can come get some enjoyment. The appreciation that's come along with us just doing our jobs is one of the nicest things."

For more information, visit otsegocountyfair.org or find "Otsego County Fair (Morris, NY)" on Facebook. Also, find "The Delaware County Fair-Walton, NY" on Facebook or visit delawarecountyfair.org.

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