County fairs, with their smells, sights, and sounds of demolition derbies, funnel cake, rodeo queens, midway barkers—and, of course, mules, giant watermelons, and pigs—typically draw millions of Americans in late summer and fall to nearly 2,000 locales across America. But not this year. More than 80 percent are canceled due to the pandemic, harming local economies. Illinois’s 104 county fairs generated $170 million in 2019; Iowa’s produced $327 million in spending, and North Carolina’s more than $24 million in revenues.
County fairs are a veritable national tradition, a reminder of our agricultural heritage, an homage to our competitive spirit (think pageants, pickles, and tractor pulls), a tribute to our volunteerism, and an important contribution to the local economy. Though originally organized to celebrate agriculture (the first was organized in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1811 with $70 in prize money paid for the best exhibits of oxen, cattle, swine, and sheep), and most still do, these fairs also excel in entertaining a far wider swath of the population with rides, entertainment, beauty pageants, and, of course, food—the greasier, the better. Some county fairs are huge: the Los Angeles County Fair generates $68 million in a typical year in gross receipts, attracting over a million visitors. The Wilson County, Tennessee fair garners nearly 500,000 visitors, and smaller fairs often surpass 100,000. The county fair tradition, for the most part, appears to be thriving.
With the exception of California (where two-thirds of the local fairs are operated by a state agency), most county fairs are sponsored, and their fairgrounds owned, by tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, primarily 501c5 tax-exempt entities, an IRS classification reserved for agricultural, horticultural and labor organizations. This kind of nonprofit, however, was not eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program as 501c3 organizations were, and thus lacked access to the government’s forgivable loans to keep employees paid.Read Debby’s Full Article at Nonprofit Quarterly