Sonoma County plans for 2nd straight year without a summer fair
Sonoma County Fair organizers are preparing for a second straight year without their marquee event, an unprecedented blow for an operation facing mounting revenue challenges amid the prolonged coronavirus pandemic.
Becky Bartling, chief executive officer for Sonoma County Fair, said the budget she’ll present to county leaders next month won’t include the county fair, typically slated for August, a signal that officials expect COVID-19 to extend its grip on public life well into 2021.
The move comes amid news of promising breakthroughs on vaccines, but uncertainty over the pace and scope of their rollout, and the implications for economic reopening, continue to vex organizers of large events like the fair. Some have been pushed back to buy more time and others have been called off.
Bartling said the fair’s board of directors will make a final decision in February.
“Right now, we just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said board President Marcia Mickelson, the chief operating officer at Kunde Family Winery. “It’s not the best place to be, but it’s where everybody is.”
The pandemic forced fair organizers to cancel this year’s summer run for the first time since World War II. And with most other bookings at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds scrapped over the past eight months, the shutdown has cut deeply into revenue that funds fair operations.
A $1 million federal payroll loan, and income from space rented for COVID-19 testing and Cal Fire operations this summer helped stanch losses. But the fair, which has already been forced to lay off 15 people, still faces a quarter-million-dollar deficit in its $9 million budget this year.
“I hate to use the totally overused word of ‘unprecedented,’ ” Bartling said. “But, it truly has been. Having to lay off folks from our close-knit team, it’s very sad.”
Unknowns surrounding the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine, including a potential lag for children’s vaccines, have led Bartling and her team to plan for a range of scenarios, including a fair with capacity capped at a quarter of regular daily attendance and a fair limited to adults.
“It’s like throwing darts at a dart board,” Bartling said.
The fairgrounds managed to recoup some business during the pandemic, by hosting COVID-19 testing since early July and renting space to the county for trailers to shelter vulnerable homeless residents.
And, for the second-straight year — and third since 2017 — the fairgrounds served as a base camp for Cal Fire while crews battled local wildfires, including the 67,000-acre Glass fire that burned into eastern Santa Rosa.
The unanticipated revenue has topped $500,000 for the year, narrowing the shortfall stemming from pandemic cancellations.
“Our financials actually look pretty good,” Bartling said. “We’ll see what happens going through 2021, and that’s what we’re working on right now.”
Amid the ongoing limbo, the California Horse Racing Board last week provided some concrete, but unwelcome news, certifying 2021 race dates that will again overlap with the start of the Sonoma County school year should the fair take place.
Bartling’s team fought against the Aug. 5-15 schedule last year, but she said this year they weren’t quite so engaged on the issue, figuring the same dates would be approved. In 2022, though, Bartling said Sonoma County will be able to start a week earlier, a win for fair organizers who have tried for years to reverse a trend of declining attendance and slumping income tied to horse racing.
The 2019 Sonoma County Fair was the sixth straight to feature lower attendance than the previous year, a trend officials have tied to a range of factors — from fear of mass shootings to a general loss of appetite for traditional Americana.
But the annual fair, which brings in about $6 million in revenue and draws more than 100,000 people, still stands as the dominant fairgrounds event and a key annual economic boost for the county.
The prospect of a second straight year without the fair is sobering, county leaders said.
“It’s definitely unfortunate for the county,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “The whole COVID pandemic has been one blow after another.”
Bartling and Mickelson, the fair board president, voiced optimism that the fair could go forward in August if the pandemic eases and health authorities give clearance for such public gatherings.
She remained hopeful that such a return could reverse the downward trajectory in fair attendance, as residents look to break out of isolation and rejoin civic life.
“I think fairs throughout the U.S. will see great attendance,” Bartling said. “People have not been able to do any of the things they traditionally do. They’re missing that sense of community. And I think, if we can do it, we’re going to have a fabulous fair.”
You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or firstname.lastname@example.org.