Montana State Fair 2020 is canceled

The 2020 Montana State Fair has been canceled.

Cascade County Commissioners voted unanimously during a special meeting May 19 to cancel the fair due to concerns and restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To hold the fair at all, the state would need to be in Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan, according to county staff and commissioners.

There’s no timeline or guarantees that would be in place by the time of fair and that’s a significant financial risk to the county and taxpayers, commissioners said.

“There are remarkably few elements in this that are within our control,” Commissioner Joe Briggs said.

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Susan Shannon, manager of Montana Expo Park, said that even in Phase 3, the fair would likely be limited by social distancing and limited capacity which would limit revenue.

“It does not paint a pretty picture,” Shannon said.

[Full audio of the meeting is available here]

Based on expenses of holding the fair and losing revenue, Shannon said she’s projecting a $909,370 deficit for Montana State Fair. That would be on top of roughly $450,000 already lost in Expo Park revenues from event cancellations, including the horse racing that usually kicks off the fair.

Gov. Steve Bullock is scheduled to host a press briefing at 3 p.m. to discuss entering Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan.

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But Phase 2 only allows gatherings of up to 50 people and even if the state goes to Phase 3, conditions could change again by fair time in late July.

“Until we’re in phase 3, we’re not ready,” said County Commissioner Jane Weber. “There’s just too many unknowns and its’ too risky, I think, to take the chance of putting on a scaled back fair and then losing revenue.”

Commissioner Jim Larson said that as much as they’d like to have fair, “every time we look at a solution or a change it just runs into more problems. Those problems would cost us and the taxpayers of Cascade County a lot of money.”

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Commissioners said they received a number of emails regarding fair and most supported canceling the event this year. About 160 people were on Tuesday’s Zoom call as commissioners took public comment and discussed the options.

Shannon said that Montana Expo Park is currently closed to the public. In Phase 2, the facility could be open to the public but only for events with 50 people or less.

Typically, Shannon said, there are about 9,000 people on the grounds daily during fair and social distancing would be challenging and would limit revenue and ticket sales, particularly for night shows, causing deficits for the county, and by extension, the taxpayer.

Several residents asked by email or on the call how social distancing would be enforced and Weber said it would likely be “impossible” with that many people on the grounds.

COVID-19 has had a “drastic impact” on fairs, festivals and events in the community, she said. “It’s had a terrible affect on all of the events around Great Falls.”

The North Dakota state fair has been canceled, Gallatin and Lewis and Clark counties are making decisions this month.

The MontanaFair in Billings is still planning to go on Aug. 7-15 with a modified event and organizers are hoping to be in Phase 3 by then.

Between March 30 and the end of this fiscal year on June 30, Shannon said $375,000 worth of booked events were canceled due to COVID-19.

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The horse racing cancellation resulted in another $80,000 in lost revenue, Shannon said.

Montana State Fair is the largest revenue generator for Montana Expo Park, but it’s not the only revenue source. The facility also gets a roughly $1 million annual taxpayer subsidy.

Commissioner Joe Briggs said commissioners were having the discussion now about fair because at this point, “we haven’t made financial commitments we can’t get out of,” but going forward it gets a little dicier.

Shannon said that there are fair startup costs that couldn’t be recouped if the event was canceled later in the summer to include marketing and advertising, box office expenses, supplies and employee costs and fees for competitive exhibits.

She said marketing and advertising would be an estimated $90,000; costs for competitive exhibits including contracts, sanctions, judges travel, staffing, supplies and materials would be about $47,000; employee recruitment for event staffing, including an additional 22 janitorial personnel, cleaning supplies and dues for events such as rodeo, among other costs, would be another $52,000.

Shannon said the majority of food vendors are local and could be socially distanced, but distancing lines in food alley would be a challenge.

Some on the call suggested spreading vendors around the fairgrounds instead of clustering them, but Briggs said the utility hookups needed are not available in other areas of the grounds.

He said that’s something the county could consider adding for post-COVID events but wouldn’t be something the county could do in time for this year’s fair.

Shannon said she’s also concerned about a potential staffing shortage and supply chain issues for disinfectant supplies, protective gear and food for the county’s food operations during fair.

As for commercial vendors, 35 are from Montana, 46 out of state and one from Canada normally, Shannon said. Rodeo contestants from last year included 179 from Montana, 222 from out of state and 36 from Canada. Shannon said the Canadians wouldn’t be able to come and it raises questions about quarantine and interstate travel.

The fair normally has about $162,000 in sponsorships that provide additional resources for fair services and Shannon said “COVID-19 has drastically impacted” some of those sponsors financially who might not be able to support fair this year.

The Mighty Thomas Carnival said they could support the fair and would make adjustments to sanitation, employee temperature checks, cleaning and limit ride capacity or eliminate rides that couldn’t meet pandemic restrictions. The carnival has been closed since March but is scheduled to be at the Billings fair in August.

Social distancing requirements would limit camping capacity at the fairgrounds from 96 spaces to 30, Shannon said.

One resident suggested increasing ticket prices and limiting sectors of the population that could attend, such as prohibiting those in vulnerable populations. County officials said hosting a public event on public grounds with public money and restricting access to sections of the population would be legally problematic.

Weber said increasing ticket prices for an event that would likely be scaled back wasn’t a good option either.

Larson said they hear complains every year that people don’t go to fair because of the cost.

“Increasing the prices in this situation would probably just cause more problems,” Larson said.

Briggs said raising ticket prices to cover lost revenue would likely just drive attendance down more, particularly when the economy has been severely impacted by COVID-19.

That would be magnified on the night shows since distancing would limit the number of tickets that could be sold.

Briggs said the county doesn’t try to make a profit on fair and “the idea is just to break even.”

One resident asked how the county would mitigate the potential for COVID-19 exposure from out of town fairgoers who would be eating out and getting gas.

Weber said it would be near impossible to do contact tracing with state fair if someone tested positive during or afterward.

“I see that we would be in a community spread situation immediately,” she said.

The 4H Livestock Show and Sale is an event separate from the fair and those organizers have been exploring options for their event.

According to a resident during the meeting, the Cascade County fair has been canceled twice before, for each World War.