Less than two months ago, plans were going full steam ahead for the 150th anniversary of the Wright County Fair, scheduled for July 22-26 at the Wright County Fairgrounds in Howard Lake.
Special anniversary-themed events were being planned. Prize giveaways were getting firmed up. Kids were going to get in free. It was setting up to be the biggest, best-attended county fair in its history.
But, as COVID-19 has effectively shut down any event where people gather, much less events that attract thousands of people, there is growing concern that the fair will need to be cancelled at some point.
However, as Commissioner Charlie Borrell said at today’s meeting of the Wright County Board of Commissioners, that time isn’t yet.
“We’re going to hold off as far as cancelling until as late as we can,” Borrell said. “I know there was a deadline to print the fair guidebook. But, I had (Assistant County Attorney Greg Kryzer) look into it and they can actually do a digital edition as close as three weeks before the fair. It’s something we’re going to have to consult with the county board and the fair board will have to work with us. If COVID-19 is still hanging around and it cuts attendance down 20 percent, it would be a huge loss. It may be such a thing that we wait until next year to have our 150th anniversary. But, we don’t need to make a decision just yet.”
The guidebook component is important because of a state law with the Minnesota Agricultural Society (also known as the State Fair Board) that requires counties that receive grant money to assist in the operation of the fair, a guidebook must be printed. But, the potential decision on whether the plug gets pulled on the 2020 Wright County Fair may be out of Wright County’s control.
The company that operates the midway, like all vendors that work the fair circuit, is shut down and there are questions that, even if Wright County opts to go ahead with the fair, if there’s no midway, it will be closed down by force, not choice.
A worst-case scenario would be putting on the 150th anniversary of the fair and having a poor turnout.
“To be honest, we’re scared,” Borrell said. “If we drop anything more than 10 percent from last year’s numbers, we’re in the red and losing money. We need to have our numbers up to do anything more than break even. It’s a scary situation.”
The fair board has bought time prior to having to make a final decision, but economics could play a major factor. To cancel the fair wouldn’t be the financial loss that a public gathering with the cloud of COVID-19 hanging over it would potentially be.
Unless the situation takes a turn for the better quickly, that possibility becomes more of a likelihood.
“There would be some costs associated with maintaining the fairgrounds if we don’t have the fair, but most of the expenses are things we bring in and things we do,” Borrell said. “It would basically be a neutral money proposition. We wouldn’t lose a lot of money like we would if we put on the fair and attendance was way down. There are going to be discussions about what is the best course of action.”
In the event there isn’t a 2020 Wright County Fair, unlike spring sports, proms and graduations, it doesn’t mean the 150th anniversary would come and go without the typical fanfare. If charted by year, 2020 would actually be the 152nd Great Wright County Get-Together. For two years during World War II, the Wright County Fairgrounds served as a prisoner of war camp for German soldiers and there was no county fair.
Borrell is trying to hold out hope and there is still time for the currently grim short-term future to change – even if it looks like a longshot.
“If the worst happens, it will still be the 150th Wright County Fair the next time we have one,” Borrell said. “That could be in 2021. We just want to put off canceling it as long as we can and, as of now, we don’t have a ‘drop-dead’ date. There are some developments that could happen in the next month or two that changes the game and the lockdowns end. We won’t be fighting over ventilators and hospital bed space. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but that’s what we’re hoping for now.”