Investment in fair buildings can revitalize region

Local officials came together in the summer of 2019 to celebrate the opening of the Pickaway Agriculture and Event Center at the fairgrounds, the culmination of years of planning and compromise to update fair buildings and stimulate the local economy.

Revamping Pickaway County fairgrounds spurs economic development

The excitement in the air was electric. A long line of vehicles waited every day to get in to see the new fairgrounds in Pickaway County. Even though half of the fair was hit by rain, nothing could dampen the mood of fairgoers. They’d waited a long time to see their beloved but dilapidated fairgrounds turned around and they visited in droves — triple the average attendance for the weeklong fair in 2019.

Years in the making, the $15.5 million overhaul was much more than a revitalization of the fair  — it was an investment in the central Ohio community and an homage to the county’s agricultural heritage.

“We have a lot of pride in who we are and our identity, and a big part of that is agriculture. The fairgrounds are not just a place for corn dogs and carnival rides — they are a symbol of our identity. It’s developed into a year-round venue for concerts, events, community activities and attracting new business,” said David Glass, development specialist of Pickaway Progress Partnership, which is the economic development organization for the county and its municipalities.

The 60-acre site was renamed the Pickaway Agriculture and Event Center and up until the COVID-19 outbreak hit, it was off to a strong start, booking a wide variety of events, including car shows, auctions, cattle clinics, health fairs, wrestling and weddings.

A new show ring building at the Pickaway County Fairgrounds rose up in 2019, taking the place of worn down and dilapidated structures.

“They went from having maybe half a dozen events in a year to having 36 events on the calendar for 2020 by January,” said Brian Stewart, a county commissioner and Pickaway County Farm Bureau member. “Agriculture is still the No. 1 industry in Pickaway County, but we have to find ways to bring in new growth while maintaining our agricultural roots.”

Making a comeback

For many years Stewart and community members were dismayed by the poor condition of the fairgrounds, which had parts dating back to the 1940s. Buildings flooded and wood rotted. Structures were unusable because they weren’t safe. While the county owned the property, the fair board managed it, and the two sides struggled for years to agree on how the fairgrounds should be rebuilt. In the end, it was decided to bulldoze the property and put up new buildings with a focus on being used more than one week per year.

Having state-of-the-art facilities has been helpful in promoting businesses to locate in Pickaway County, which is just south of Columbus, one of the nation’s fastest growing metro areas. It used to be that the fairgrounds were an embarrassing eyesore.

“People would drive by the fairgrounds to visit us, and the first impression wasn’t great because the fairgrounds were in such bad shape,” said Stewart, an attorney who works on agriculture-related issues. ”But now we’ve got a pristine show arena that’s a place where community groups can hold large-scale events. They no longer have to go to Columbus to find a space large enough.”

The Wayne County Fair Event Center, a 26,000-square-foot multi-use facility, opened in time for the county fair in September 2019.

Community partner

The revamping of the fairgrounds illustrates how Pickaway County is invested in its community and taking a forward-thinking approach to attracting new business and tourists, Stewart said.

“When you’re trying to attract new employers, you’re auditioning. You’re saying ‘Come invest $300 million to build your new facility,’ but we’ve found they don’t want to just set up shop if they don’t feel their employees want to live there,” he said. “They want quality schools and entertainment options and to have the general feeling that a community is trying to better itself.”

A new 22,000-square-foot livestock complex debuted at the Portage Randolph Fair in 2019, housing pigs, lambs and goats. The building is also available for community events all year long.

Watching a community come together to support the new fairgrounds and agriculture is refreshing, said Glass, who is Ross County Farm Bureau’s treasurer and involved in policy development. He pointed out that new agribusinesses have set up in Pickaway County, including the DeLong Co., which ships local grain to China. Both he and Stewart praised county Farm Bureau members for being actively involved in their community.

“This project had great support from Farm Bureau locally all the way through — not just encouragement and public backing but financially,” Stewart said. “You don’t have to drive very far to realize that farms have been here since the founding of our country and are going to stay that way for a long time. We want to continue to support agriculture while growing our county.” 

County fairs can go on during COVID-19 crisis

The Ohio Department of Health issued an order June 16 that county fairs could continue to be held pretty much as planned — food, rides, games, livestock shows and all.

The order stated that fair boards and managers should conduct the fair in a manner that discourages the large gathering of people on the midway or on other parts of the fairgrounds. Also where possible, the fair should provide one-way traffic in buildings or other areas, where doing so will help people maintain social distancing.

Check with the county Farm Bureau for an update on the status of the county fair. Visit ofbf.org/counties for contact information.

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COVID-19 guidelines for county fairs

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