County fairs boost local economies

August 8, 2006
County fairs boost local economies

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study by Oregon State University has found that county fairs and year-round fairground events contribute to local and statewide economies both by generating local dollars and by building social capital.

Bruce Sorte, an OSU Extension economist in the College of Agricultural Sciences, analyzed the flow of goods and services created by county fairs in different parts of Oregon. He examined visitors' spending as well as direct expenditures of the fair and other fairground activities, he found that county fairs' expenditures and the expenditures that they attracted to the local economy leveraged the fairs' budgets by five times. In some counties, public funds leveraged economic activity at a rate greater than 1 to 10.

The study focused on four Oregon counties – Douglas, Hood River, Tillamook and Grant – and statewide economic impacts.

"We did have trouble confining our discussion to only economic activities of county fairs," Sorte said. "The social capital that county fairs foster is important but very tough to measure."

Among his calculations of expenditures, Sorte included a characteristic transaction of county fairs, namely the purchases by local people of local goods and services during the fairs and year-round events. These purchases retain dollars in the local economy and replace purchases of imported goods that would leak dollars out of the county. So-called "import substitution" can be just as valuable to the local economy as exports, according to Sorte. And local goods that are popular with local consumers may eventually become exports and bring new income into the local area.

"County fairs are one of the few bright spots in the economy where local purchases are encouraged and made," Sorte said.

In addition to generating dollars for counties and providing a forum for local buying and selling, county fairs highlight the natural resource base of local economies.

Hood River and Tillamook counties in particular are experiencing economic transformations even more rapidly than other rural areas, as lifestyle-based economies are combining with natural resource-based economies, according to Sorte.

"Yet, the business people we interviewed in these counties saw county fairs and the natural resource sector of the economy as the roots of their communities," he said.

As counties change, so do county fairs, especially in terms of demographics. For example, Sorte found increasing engagement from Latino communities in fairs and fairground events.

"The idea of a county fair goes back to the medieval marketplace, where people from the countryside gathered to be entertained and exchange goods and information," Sorte said. "Later, during the Industrial Revolution, fairs staged competitions among crop and livestock breeders, and people learned new techniques to produce goods. Similar interactions are still going on in county fairs today."

Most importantly, county fairs in Oregon serve as gathering places for local people across cultures, ages, professions and leisure activities.

"County fairs are pushing against a strong tide of social isolation," Sorte said. Social capital builds when local people gather – when backyard farmers talk with growers, when 4-H kids sell their livestock at a local auction, when cottage industries and local organizations set up booths.

"Knowing a person can reduce the cost of a transaction, and the 'warranty' may be knowing that future problems can be worked out among friends," Sorte said.

The forthcoming study, "Oregon County Fairs: An Economic Impact Analysis," was funded by the Oregon Fairs Association and will be available in September on the OSU Rural Studies Program website:

Author: Peg Herring
Source: Bruce Sorte