The 2020 Great Jones County Fair (GJCF) was a fair unlike any other and will likely not be back to normal in 2021.
General Manager John Harms went before the Jones County Board of Supervisors Jan. 19 to discuss his budget request and talk about the fair that was and the one yet to come.
Taking the supervisors back to last March, Harms said the Zac Brown Band’s cancellation of not only their appearance at the Great Jones County Fair but their entire schedule for the year was a turning point in the discussion.
“That was an eye-opening event all by itself. Most of these entertainers were backing off a few weeks at a time,” Harms said. “Wasn’t a real popular decision in the industry for him to do that, but he turned out to be the smartest one in the pile.”
With each fair having to make its own decision on what to do with the fair, the shift to make the fair focused on the livestock portion only took some convincing for some members of the fair board. When Harms laid out the financial reality they were facing, the path forward crystalized. He asked board members for two numbers: what percentage of people they thought they’d get and what percentage of money they usually spend they would do once they get into the fair. The number they settled on was about 50% of revenues with fairly normal expenses on a $4 million budget if they tried to run the fair as normal.
“We ran some scenarios where we ended up losing $1.5 million,” Harms said.
With that, the board bought into the shift to focus on livestock and push entertainment to the following year. Harms knew they’d be able to pull off the fair because they had the necessary space and facilities to be able to pull it off. Livestock events were spread out from five days to nine. The more spaced-out schedule and livestock focus brought Harms a silver lining.
“Since 1986 when I got involved with the fair, that was the most enjoyable fair I’ve ever had,” Harms said. “I got to see it first of all, and it wasn’t so filled with pressure...Every day by five o’clock we were looking for something to do because people were gone.”
The way the fair was able to use its equestrian center has led the fair to try to determine how they can use it for more events. They’re already seeing some of the benefits. Harms said the site hosted “a fair number” of wedding receptions in the fall, with more businesses booking it for events.
The fair did get some financial assistance through the governor’s grant program for the fair industry, getting both a $75,0000 and a $25,000 grant to help offset income that did not materialize. The fair was able to clear out their debt for the year but still have some liability for services not rendered for concerts like Dan + Shay that rolled over and campground reservations.
Harms hopes the fair will go on as relatively normal but says signs point to things not being back up to where they were.
“I’m not sure even the 2022 fair is going to be back to normal as we’d like it,” Harms said.
The fair is planning on having all their normal events but are waiting for the right moment to put concert tickets up for sale. While tickets usually go on sale starting in October, nothing is live yet.
“We’re not going to launch anything until the consumer confidence is better,” Harms said.
Since September, the board has been estimating revenue and attendance, which currently sits at around 60% for a full slate of expenses. While there are some positive signs that confidence is on the way up, citing Blake Shelton at the Iowa State Fair selling $950,000 in the first day, Harms wasn’t quite ready to roll out sales yet. For the prices the fair pays for entertainment, the fair needed “6,000 people standing shoulder to shoulder, and we’ve got to have concessions,” Harms told the supervisors.