A brighter 2021

Save the fair campaign raises more than $1.5 million

-Messenger photo by Karen Schwaller
AG-CITING is a staple at the Clay County Fair, which is rooted in agriculture education. Here, ISU Extension and Outreach Field Specialist Paul Kassel leads an Ag-Citing session for adults, which was new to the 2018 fair. Among other things, participants learned about pieces of field equipment as they walked the fairgrounds together, and about commodities, their value to consumers and how they are produced.

SPENCER — Jeremy Parsons stood before the media last July to make an announcement he never expected to have to make in all of his years in the fair industry.

There would be no Clay County Fair in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Clay County Fair has been in existence since 1917 … starting during WW I; only the desperation and needs of WW II have ever stopped the fair from going on as planned — until COVID-19.

Parsons and his executive board met in several special sessions prior to his announcement to talk about what should happen with the fair. Volunteers in great number were hesitant to help due to the pandemic, and the cost of extra sanitation alone was staggering. Would people recognize the fair with all of the protocols that would be necessary in order to comply with CDC and local public health guidelines? And who would carry out the protocols? Who would “police” them to ensure fairgoer safety?

Parsons and his board also knew the possibility for financial hardship would most likely follow if the fair could not go on as planned, especially following a last-minute unforeseen concert cancellation during the 2019 fair in which the fair also took an unexpected financial hit.

-Messenger photo by Karen Schwaller
The Clay County Fair was canceled in 2020, a “Save the Fair” campaign was done this year that helped to raise over $1.5 million. Those funds will allow the Clay County Fair Board to put on a fair in 2021.

The decision to postpone the fair would be unprecedented in modern times. But finally in the first days of July, the 12-member executive board — after having surveyed the public in a couple of different ways and gathering input and opinions from the larger 27-member fair board, made the decision to not go on with planning a 2020 fair.

Now what?

“I think it was Winston Churchill who once said, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste,'” Parsons said of the painful process of deciding whether or not to have the fair. “Once we had made the decision to not have the fair, then we could switch our focus to the things we could do.”

Parsons said he and his staff and board put their heads together to try to think of some events that could actually happen in the face of social distancing, local public health and CDC guidelines and in keeping sanitation a priority.

They came up with some events they called, “Clay County UN-Fair” events and activities. They included events like “Non-Profit Take-Out Tuesdays,” whereby the local nonprofit organizations on the fairgrounds could make some of their foods and offer it “to go.” “Fair Food to Go” also offered would-be fairgoers a chance to take home some of their favorite fair foods.

-Messenger photo by Karen Schwaller
The duck slide proved to be a fun and big attraction at the 2014 Clay County Fair. Free attractions like those are just part of what gives fair-goers much to see each year.

There was the Clay County Exclusive 4-H and FFA Livestock Show, giving youth who had already made the investment in their livestock a chance to show them at the fairgrounds in a smaller and more crowd-controlled environment; and “Fair in a Box,” whereby people who missed the fair could order a box filled with various items that they might find at the fair.

“We were able to rotate through those things which were done for two reasons — one was still to fulfill our mission of agriculture and bring people together,” said Parsons. “Secondly and from a business perspective, those events provided some cash flow.”

Parsons said the hardest pill to swallow about postponing the fair was that by doing that, 75 percent of their revenue was gone.

“Those events allowed us some much-needed cash flow to help keep us afloat,” he said.

Save the Fair

-Messenger photo by Karen Schwaller
Free entertainment is something the Clay County Fair spends much money on every year so fairgoers don’t have to pay to sit under the shade of a tent to relax and enjoy entertainment acts such as musicians, ventriloquists, magicians, comedians, tribute artists, and more.

Parsons said that income, while important, was a springboard of sorts to launch a larger fundraising campaign called, “Save the Fair.” That campaign called on the general public to help make sure the Clay County Fair could go on in 2021 at least, and ensure a financial basis for the fair for future generations.

That campaign had raised at the time of this writing, more than $1.5 million.

“That project has been a labor of love,” said Parsons, adding that two local men — John Cotton and Dave Potratz — along with a committee of people who worked with them, were the driving forces behind that project.

“With that funding, we now have (the money) available to put on a 2021 fair that will be up to the standard and expectations that people have come to expect for the World’s Greatest County Fair,” Parsons said, adding that there will be a fair in 2021.

“We also have confidence that, if COVID-19 will allow, it will be the fair we knew pre-COVID,” he said. “If we have to do any scaling back it will be because of a potential COVID-related guideline that might be in place by then, but it will not be scaled back from a financial perspective.”

The postponement of the 2020 fair led to a loss of roughly $2.1 million in revenues, but the “Save the Fair” campaign recouped enough of that loss to allow planning to begin for a 2021 fair, according to Parsons.

“Peoples’ generosity shows how much people love the fair and want to be part of it,” Parsons said. “Obviously, the money you take in from one fair helps to pay for the next year’s fair, and we didn’t have one in 2020. The blessing of all of this is that people have rallied together … and helped us beyond our wildest dreams in a tough situation.”

The “Save the Fair” campaign continues, with checks payable to the Clay County Fair Charitable Trust, which is a 501(c)(3) entity. Contributions are tax deductible, and are still welcome.

Saving the fair was not all that needed to happen. The loss of the fair’s revenues in 2020 meant serious cut-backs had to be made, including on the fair staff. Parsons said rather than laying people off, staff members each took a temporary 20 percent pay cut, including himself. Keeping the team together, he said, was important.

“Our full-time team is essential to the production of all of our events as well as the fair, and we wanted to keep them together,” said Parsons said, adding that when employees are let go and hiring is done again there is institutional knowledge lost and added expenses that go with it. “We wanted to find a way to keep the team together because as of now we are able to plan for a full 2021 fair with our full team involved, and that will be key to putting on a fair that everyone expects and wants, and people are going to want that fair more than ever.”

Parsons said the sacrifices made by his full-time team were “extraordinary.”

“With a 20 percent pay cut and to still be dedicated to our mission and what we do, and to come to work and keep putting on events as much as we could … I can’t say enough about their dedication to the fair,” said Parsons. “This team (more than anybody) is ready for people to come back in September. It’s a very special group.”

Parsons said the group is projected to go back to full-time pay on March 1.

What’s planned for 2021?

Parsons said the success of a 2021 fair will hinge largely on people’s confidence surrounding COVID-19. He said the fair will do all it can do to keep fairgoers safe, and that many fairgoers will have been vaccinated for COVID-19 by then.

“We have prided ourselves on having a very clean fair here, but it will go to the next level,” Parsons said, adding that common surfaces throughout the fairgrounds will be top priority to keep clean and sanitized throughout the day, all nine days of the fair.

Parsons and the IAFE

Parsons said at the time of this writing, the South Florida Fair was having its run and was seeing success. He said it was encouraging to see since 95 percent of fairs in North America did not occur in their normal format in 2020, devastating the fair industry overall.

That haunting fact interests Parsons very much since he will be the 2022 chairman of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE) beginning in late November. He currently serves as first vice chair, and at age 43, he will be the youngest person in the association’s history to serve as its leader. He was just 17 when he received his first paycheck for working at the Iowa State Fair, and 26 years later he’s still working in the fair industry.

“To represent a county fair as the chair of the organization speaks to the importance of where in the fair world the Clay County Fair stands,” Parsons said of the organizations that represents all fairs of all sizes. “… to be able to represent our fair at the highest level in the fair industry — and the recognition our fair has throughout the fair industry is incredible. I’m honored to serve and to lead this organization.”

2022 will take Parsons around the world as he attends meetings, conventions and other fairs in an effort to better understand the industry as a whole all around the world. He said it will help him in his role as Clay County Fair manager in that he can take what he sees as the best of the best and try to bring it back to his own fair if possible, to make it even better.

Parsons will chair IAFE meetings, serve as a public spokesperson for the fair industry, attend association meetings regionally and around the world and plan the fall IAFE convention. He said he is excited at the prospects of some of the people he works with in the IAFE domestically and internationally coming to Spencer to see and experience the Clay County Fair as well.

Parsons said 2021 will be a time in the fair industry overall to get back to work, and he said he hopes 2022 will be a year of celebration for getting through a pandemic year and rising from the ashes.

Parsons said all fairs face some challenges ahead, including a shrinking volunteer base, aging fairground facilities and the challenges of animal rights activists.

“It’s a challenging time to be in leadership for the IAFE,” Parsons said. “Some states are very locked down and I don’t know what their fairs will be like. But fairs are all about bringing people together and showcasing the best in our communities, and that’s something we desperately need in our world, so we need to get back to work to help get things back to normal. We want to meet these challenges and be unified so we can go forward into a pretty bright future.”

The 2021 Clay County Fair is currently scheduled to run Sept. 11-19.

Parsons’ involvement

Parsons started managing the Clay County Fair in 2011.

He is a member of the Spencer Community School Board of Education, has served on the Spencer Chamber of Commerce Board and still serves on the Clay County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau Board, and is an active member of — and volunteer at — First Baptist Church in Spencer. He and his wife, Kelsi, have three sons.

This past September there were people walking around and driving around the fairgrounds during the nine days when the fair would have been running. Some of those people told him there was something in the rhythm of life that said they should be out on the fairgrounds at that time of year.

Parsons is looking forward to that actually happening this year.

“Opening on Sept. 11 is exciting to think about, as well as having people here on the fairgrounds where they belong,” said Parsons. “After 2020, people need hope and sunshine and a sense of normalcy more than anything.”

For more information on the Clay County Fair, visit www.claycountyfair.com.


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