Hamilton County Fair 'Could Vanish Almost Without A Murmur,' Task Force Says
The Hamilton County commissioners will receive recommendations Tuesday from a 16-member task force established to review the future of the county fair.
The commission established the group in October 2019, and it has met several times to review the fair and its recently declining attendance.
In 2004, fair attendance was more than 20,000. By 2007, it had dropped to about 10,000. It was estimated at 5,500 in 2019. By contrast, the Montgomery County Fair in Dayton had an attendance of around 27,000 in 2018.
The county commissioners own the county fairgrounds in Carthage, but by state law the county Agricultural Society is the organizer and host of the annual fair.
"Hamilton County Fair has a rich history, potentially a base on which to build an equally productive future," the task force's 11-page report and recommendations stated. "Without immediate action however, it is more likely to become one of those lovely things our community once had, but which now has vanished."
The task force's main recommendation is the governance structure of the Agricultural Society.
"One of the things that emerged in early task force conversations however is that Agricultural Society leadership is hampered by arcane membership requirements," the report stated. "Moreover, there are no easy fixes to these structural obstacles. Many of them are embedded in the Ohio Revised Code and thus beyond the control of the Agricultural Society."
The report said state law "lays out an Agricultural Society board election process that seems better suited to the horse and buggy than the digital age."
It stated the only way to become a society member is to purchase a membership in person at the fair headquarters. Then, only members can nominate and vote on board members, who must collect signatures from 10 members on a nominating petition. The task force said that leaves the numbers of members and potential candidates small.
"Consequently, the same people end up serving on the Agricultural Society board," the report stated. "And then those same folks are the ones running the fair and managing the fairgrounds - for years if not decades. Institutional memory is important to any organization, but this system forces it to the extreme and facilitates institutional rigidity, insularity, and burnout."
The report notes the Agricultural Society was given an "unauditable finding" by the state auditor and lost it's 501(c)3 IRS non-profit status.
"The task force discovered an organization struggling with even fundamental management practices," the report stated. "There simply are not enough professionals, nor sufficient resources, to run an orderly business. Administrative structures are lacking, record keeping minimal and forward planning extremely limited."
The task force recommends increasing the number of agricultural society members, expanding the capacity of the board, providing additional expertise to lead organizational change, and improving transparency.
The task force said if the governance issues can be addressed, there are several other things that need attention.
Those include: buildings and grounds improvements including developing a master plan for the grounds; hosting more events to fully activate the property to allow it to be a community asset and reintroduce residents to the fairgrounds; and increasing branding and marketing, including refreshing the fair website and developing a new narrative about the fairgrounds.
A 2009 task force made similar suggestions for reforming the county fair, and those largely weren't implemented. The members of the current task force said they hope their recommendations won't have a similar fate.
"With hard work, determination and a spirit of cooperation the task force has confidence that the recommended actions can be executed and a fair and fairgrounds all Hamilton Countians can be proud of will be treasures to be enjoyed generations in our community."
The task force said without action, the county and Agricultural Society "will be back in no time trying to save the fair."
Several years ago, county 4-H groups separated from the Hamilton County Fair and now hold their own 4-H Community Fair at Stricker's Grove Amusement Park in Crosby Township. That event is held in July. It's website highlights animal shows, concessions and rides similar to what is typically found at a county fair in Ohio.
You can read the recommendation in full below.