What will happen with the 2021 Freeborn County Fair?

Published 1:32 pm Tuesday, April 13, 2021

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The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday discussed the impact COVID-19 restrictions could have on the county fair board’s ability to have a financially successful fair. 

Freeborn County Fair Manager Mike Woitas said the decision about the 2021 Grandstand entertainment has to be made by the end of April as part of the agreement with the entertainers contracted to perform.

Woitas said if the decision had to be made today regarding whether to move forward with the fair, state mandate would allow only 25% occupancy in the Grandstand for the nightly entertainment, which would mean only about 1,900 people could watch each Grandstand show. 

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“Financially it would be devastating for the fair to continue,” he said. 

The fair board typically spends about $225,000 for entertainer contracts, plus staging, lighting, hotel rooms for the entertainers and other expenses, for a total of about $300,000, he said. The fair board relies on costs to enter the fair to pay for the entertainment, but if attendance were poor, the fair could essentially lose money. 

“Financially, we’re not gamblers,” Woitas said. “We can’t roll the dice and hope that people would come and hope that the restrictions would be lifted by the first week in August.” he said. 

On top of potential effects from occupancy restrictions, Woitas and Fair Board Member Don Nolander said the carnival rides are also up in the air. 

Nolander said the carnival operator is worried about its license and safety under Minnesota guidelines. The operator said it would only be allowed to have one person per unit unless it is a family, and then after every cycle of rides, the entire ride would need to be sanitized.  

“Mom and Dad bring four kids and come out to the fair and put their kids on a ride, they’re going to stand there for five hours trying to get on a ride,” he said. 

Nolander said he has personally requested guidance from Gov. Tim Walz about events for later this summer without hearing anything back and said he is frustrated that some guidance can’t be given. 

“Let’s be honest, we can’t afford to lose two or three hundred thousand dollars because we don’t have it,” Nolander said. “We can’t afford to lose.” 

He said if the governor were to open things up more in July, the fair board could possibly get the carnival operator if it was available — though the operator has been in the southern United States because that part of the country is more opened up. 

Woitas said if the county board decides not to do a full fair, they would support having 4-H livestock and non-livestock exhibits — though state 4-H is only allow allowing for participants, not spectators.  Nolander said they could also potentially have local entertainment, food stands and a demolition derby. 

“But for us right now to bet the future of the Freeborn County Fair on what’s going on — it’s just not good,” he said, noting that new cases and hospitalizations in Minnesota are increasing. “I can’t see things getting relaxed much more.” 

First District Commissioner Brad Edwin questioned whether the county would be able to utilize some of the federal relief funds to support the fair, and Administrator Tom Jensen said the county is still learning more about how the funds can and cannot be used. 

Third District Commissioner John Forman questioned the road condition of Bridge Avenue construction at the beginning of August. 

County Engineer Phil Wacholz said by that point, there should be one layer of bituminous on Bridge Avenue from the fairgrounds entrance to Richway Drive, and east and west traffic will be open on Richway. Any traffic coming south on Bridge Avenue from Interstate 90 will have to use the detour. 

“We get everybody wants to have a fair,” Woitas said. I think you have all been asked if you’re going to have a fair, and we want to have a fair, too, but we can’t take financial responsibility.”