First Year Without A State Fair

By: Corey Williams/AP
By: Corey Williams/AP

Rabbit breeder Rob Usakowski typically spends the week before Labor Day helping his daughters show their Jersey Woolies and Holland Lops at the Michigan State Fair.
This year, he and his family are home after Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm canceled the fair, saying debt-ridden Michigan could no longer afford to subsidize it. Granholm's decision makes Michigan the only Midwestern state and one of few nationwide without a state fair.
The Michigan State Fair had been a state tradition for 160 years and held at Eight Mile and Woodward, within Detroit city limits, since 1905. But the fair had been running deficits and needed $360,000 from the state in 2008 to cover losses. Fewer than 220,000 people passed through last year. At its peak in 1966, the fair drew 1 million.
Usakowski, 44, who lives in St. Clair County, northeast of Detroit, called the fair's closing "a bummer" and said it had given his daughters a grand stage on which to compete. This year, they have been limited to county fairs and competitions run by the American Rabbit Breeders Association.
"It takes some emphasis in our state off agriculture," Usakowski said. "The state fair was unique and special in what it does."
Like those in other states, the Michigan fair had its roots in agrarian fairs in Europe, where farmers met to discuss farming techniques and equipment. As waves of immigrants came to the U.S., they influenced the fairs, which added ethnic foods and other attractions.
One thing that hurt the Michigan fair was the state's economy. Michigan's unemployment rate of 15.2 percent led the nation in August 2009 when the last fair was held. Detroit's jobless rate is about 30 percent.
But part of the problem also seems to have been the fair's inability to successfully marry its agrarian roots with money-making entertainment as other state fairs have done.
"State fairs, like the one in Iowa, attendance is up or steady because they have been made as major tourist attractions," said Pam Riney-Kehrberg, professor of agriculture history and rural studies at Iowa State University. "In states where they haven't been able to cultivate a special ethos for the fair, numbers are going down."
The 11-day Iowa State Fair drew about 970,000 this year. Along with typical fair fare, including 4-H livestock judging, a cow sculpted from butter, and chicken and husband calling contests, it had a musical lineup led by country music star Keith Urban and pop singer Sheryl Crow.
In contrast, the Michigan fair's top entertainers last year were the aging rockers in Starship and Survivor, along with Billy Squier. Several little-known country acts also performed.
"The Michigan State Fair being canceled, that's just tragic," said Jerry Hammer, general manager of the Minnesota State Fair.
He thought one problem was the fair's reliance on state subsidies because when those ended, the fair essentially collapsed.
"We don't have any government support here, and that is critical to our success," he said.
The Minnesota State Agricultural Society controls the fairgrounds in Minneapolis, approves the $36 million budget, sets rates and raises money for the event. Last year, the fair drew 1.79 million people and made $1.5 million in profit.
While the event has become known for unusual foods, such as chocolate-covered bacon and deep-fried pickles on a stick, Hammer said its focus on family farms and agriculture is still the main draw.
"This is where you come face to face with the people who grow your food," he said. "These are the people who feed you. Where else can city folk go to see this stuff?"
In Michigan, agriculture remains the No. 2 industry behind manufacturing, and the state is among the nation's leaders in production of sugar beets, cherries, apples, corn and other produce. Smaller fairs continue to celebrate that heritage, and at least one appears to have benefited from the state fair's closing.
The Armada Fair, held in northern Macomb County in mid-August, drew about 57,000 people -- 2,000 more than in 2009.
"We were up in exhibitors by a few hundred, especially the livestock," said Mary Straubel, an employee of the Armada Agricultural Society, which runs the fair. "We had far more horses this year, beef cattle and dairy cattle."
But that's no consolation to people like Annette Ellis, who grew up going to the Michigan State Fair and continued the tradition with her two daughters.
"We would get together and enjoy the state fair, the rides and some of the performances," said Ellis, 49, a former pharmaceutical worker from Detroit. "It was a nice family get together."
Smaller community fairs don't have the same rides and cost too much for what they offer, she said.
"I miss the bumper cars and the Tilt-a-Whirl," Ellis said. "It's very disappointing."


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