Recommendations To Save Hamilton County Fair Under Review

Sep 15, 2020

At least one member of the Hamilton County Agricultural Society is welcoming the recommendations of a 16-member task force established to review the county fair.

County Fair Board Member and Treasurer Tonya Elliot participated in a county commission staff meeting Tuesday about the future of the fair.

The task force found the fair could "vanish" without immediate action.

Elliot said there is a lot to do and the agricultural society is taking steps to improve the fair and the fairgrounds in Carthage.

"Nothing that the task force said was taken as, 'Oh my, we can't do this; we don't want to do this; we're not going to listen,' " Elliot said.

Elliot said the group is working on a strategic plan for the fair, and that will take time. It also needs a revenue stream to pay for it.

"To be able to generate more income, to be able to rent out the fairgrounds more often, to do better at the fair and hopefully apply for more grants and so forth to get some of these improvements made," Elliot said.

She said it costs about $10,000 a month just to maintain the fairgrounds and pay for utilities.

County Commission President Denise Driehaus had called for creating a task force more than a year ago to study the fair. She reiterated her call Tuesday for a strategic plan.

"Try to create partnerships related to urban farming, the school kids that you mentioned, and try to make sure that these really strong partnerships are in place so that we're doing as much as we can with this county asset," Driehaus said.

The Hamilton County Fair has been declining for years and was not held this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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 commission received the task force report in August.

"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."

The task force recommended increasing the number of agricultural society members, expanding the capacity of the board, providing additional expertise to lead organizational change, and improving transparency.

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. A county official praised Elliot for working to improve the fair's finances.

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.

The fair's website has now received a refresh and there's more outreach on social media.

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.

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.