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The value of a county fair

wide shot of carnival midway with ferris wheel, carousel, and games at night
The Beltrami County Fairgrounds light up as evening sets in.

County fairs are a Minnesota summer experience with a long history. But Patrick Erickson, carnival superintendent with the Beltrami County Agricultural Association, is focused on the future.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the association turned to the University of Minnesota Extension team of Brigid Tuck, economic impact analyst; Xinyi Qian of the Tourism Center; and Rani Bhattacharyya, Extension community economics educator, to conduct an economic impact analysis and a survey of exhibitors, vendors and fairgoers. 

Everything they learned had time to incubate while the 2020 fairs were canceled due to the pandemic, but it's all back "in play" now as Erickson gears up for the Beltrami County Fair, taking place Aug. 11-15, 2021.

“The county fair is in the entertainment business,” says Erickson. “You have to manage costs and provide a good experience.” He credits Extension with providing credible, useful information to fair leaders.

Paying attention to customers and economic impact

The county wanted to better articulate the fair’s value to private and public funders, without whom they can’t keep the gates open. Now, funders know that their investment generates $1,070,281 in economic activity, and that every dollar has a return of $4.43 in spending.

girls with chickens in costume
The poultry costume contest is always a hit with 4-H youth participants and the audience. Photo courtesy of 4-H volunteer Rose Erickson.

The team surveyed vendors and fairgoers to help the fair board better understand what works for them and what doesn’t. The survey will guide improvements and help the fair build on its strengths. It revealed that the most enjoyable aspects of the event are animals, food and beverages, and Extension 4-H activities.

“We have a good partnership with 4-H,” says Erickson. “If we focus on kids, they’ll bring their own kids back in a few years.”

What does a county fair do? 

Extension’s team has studied county fairs in Beltrami and Pine counties. Here’s what they learned.

Fairs drive economic activity.
Each of the counties generated around $1 million in spending.

Fairs reach tourists.
In Pine County, only 56% of fairgoers were locals. In Beltrami County, fairgoers came from 42 states, four Native American communities and Canada.

Visitors bring in money.
In Beltrami County, each fairgoer spent $28 a day on average.  

Fairs bring in entertainment.
Residents enjoy it, increasing quality of life and social connections.

Fairs support community.
Pine County actively attracts nonprofit vendors, which invested average sales of $12,300 back in the county.

Fairs make people happy.
In both counties, over 90 percent were satisfied with their fair.

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