Manager: Moving York Fair to summer could be 'catalyst'
York County's more than 250-year tradition could soon undergo a major change, as management considers moving the annual York Fair to the summer months.
It won't be the first time the fair's seen change.
A fixture on the county's September skyline since 1942, the fair used to be held in October, said the fair's general manager, Michael Froehlich.
People were probably up in arms about it when that change was made, saying, "the fair will never be the same," he said.
He cited an old York Dispatch article laying out concerns from farmers in the 1890s and early 1900s that the fair was moving away from its roots.
When the fair started to have non-agricultural vendors, Froehlich said, some animal exhibitors claimed it was unjust to them because it would drive agriculturalists away.
Yet the fair continues to have a strong agricultural program today, he said, with attractions such as goat mountain and the animal birthing center, put in a few years ago.
"It’s so easy for people to be critical," he said. "Change is inevitable and is a tremendous catalyst to move organizations forward."
Changing mission: Though fair attendance has been down in recent years, Froehlich said that's not the reason for the change.
The York Fair board applied for a grant from the York County Tourism grant committee to help reflect its changing mission.
Before what's now the Utz Arena was built in 2003, Froehlich said, the York Expo Center's main claim to fame was the annual fair, but now the venue has transitioned into the county's convention and trade-show center.
Revenue brought in from the Expo Center is split about 50-50 between other events and the York Fair — generating well over $200 million yearly, with more than 150 events throughout the year, he said.
Froehlich said the Expo Center receives a number of inquiries to rent buildings and host trade shows during September, so moving the York Fair to the summer would create opportunities for additional business.
The board received a $66,000 grant from the tourism committee, along with its own additional 25 percent contribution, to be used toward a long-range strategic plan, he said.
The board hired Markin Consulting — a firm out of Minnesota that has worked with a lot of fairs, expo centers, convention centers and other similar organizations — and one of the firm's suggestions was to look into a summer move.
School's out: "In many ways, the fair has become more of an evening and weekend fair, and that’s because school’s in session," Froehlich said.
School is starting in September, and the York Fair is competing with Friday night football and other weekend sporting events as well.
Kids in 4-H clubs who typically show their animals at the fair cannot always make it because of conflicts with school schedules — and there is pressure on schools today to keep kids in school, he said.
With the fair taking place in the summer, kids would be able to show more often, and other kids out of school in the summer could stay later during longer daylight hours, which would help concession and ride sales, Froehlich said.
He added college students also would be home for the summer, providing opportunities for them to take advantage of internships or work at the fair.
"I think there’s a lot of positives for it," he said, stating it would be the only way the fair could make a jump in attendance.
Experience with success: Though moving the fair would change a longstanding tradition, summer dates have been a tradition for other fairs.
Froehlich said many major fairs around the country are held in the summer, such as the Iowa, Indiana and Delaware state fairs, and a lot of county fairs are held in June or July, before the larger state fairs.
Froehlich was general manager of the Ohio State Fair for 13 years and experienced its successful move to the summer to better fit in with the school schedule.
The Ohio fair used to end on Labor Day, when school was back in session for the fall, but once schools started moving their start times back into the summer, Froehlich said, fairs had to adjust.
With a 10-day fair like York County's, "you need to make every day a vacation day," he said.
"Weather-wise, a lot of major fairs do well," he said of the summer timeframe. Given that hurricanes and tropical storms tend to affect the York County area in September, the summer months would offer an advantage.
10-year plan: After the board considers the strategic plan, a 10-year master plan for the fairgrounds will be developed.
One of the early recommendations from the board's consultant, after surveying current and prospective users of the facility, is to increase building space in three major areas of the York Expo Center to remain competitive and meet increased needs.
Markin recommended expanding Utz Arena by 30,000 to 35,000 square feet and adding 8,000 feet of dividable meeting space.
In addition, the company advised expanding the western part of Mid Atlantic Industrial Memorial Hall by 10,000 to 15,000 square feet and improving the two rooms — the Verandah Room (formerly the White Rose Room) and the connected Pennsylvania Room — which together make up the 12,000-square-foot banquet center.
Froehlich said the 86½-acre fenced-in campus has many buildings constructed in the 1890s that have seen little, if any, major renovations.
"We do have an aging facility," he said, which is very historic and iconic but comes with a price.
The York Fair campus is competing against other facilities that are putting millions of dollars into their facilities on a regular basis, he said.
Froehlich said thee board is looking at minimum costs of $40 million or $50 million in the 10-year plan.
"I think the future looks good, we just have to plan for it," he said.
Where is the money? "The real challenge is, how do you come up with that money?" Froehlich said. "Where do you get it from?"
Another part of the strategic plan is considering reorganization.
The fair and Expo Center currently operate as a nonprofit agricultural society, he said, with membership and an elected board of directors.
But the board might think about organizing its year-round activities differently.
As a nonprofit, the Expo Center still pays real estate and debt service on its buildings, while other trade show centers are tax-supported. Other than the hotel tax, which the facility benefits from as part of the tourism industry, it generates its own money.
Froehlich said the fair board needs to consider whether or not it should remain a nonprofit or have an overarching umbrella organization to look over the Expo Center, while the York Fair operates as a separate component.
"It would be improper if we didn’t look at it," he said. "Are we organized to be competitive?"
Next steps: "You can’t do this overnight," Froehlich said.
The fair will return this September, and Froehlich said he expects plans to move the dates will be discussed next year. It could even take a couple of years to get the proper logistics in place.
There are many things to evaluate, such as animal-breeding schedules, competition with summer events and vendor availability.
Froehlich assures the community that the board will do its due diligence in looking at all aspects that will affect the decision, including the important role of community input.