Commentary: California must enhance investment in local fairs

Issue Date: September 9, 2020
By Kevin Cann
Kevin Cann
Livestock pens donated last year by the California Bountiful Foundation have been deployed for wildfire evacuations this summer.
Photo/Ching Lee
County and district fairgrounds serve a number of functions for local communities, including as emergency evacuation centers for farm animals.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

The current spate of wildfires highlights the utility of one of California's most under-appreciated assets: our system of county fairs.

Now, you may be thinking, what does the state have to do with county fairs? More than 140 years ago, California began organizing what is known today as the Network of California Fairs, consisting of 79 fairs that operate under a variety of governance structures, including 52 active state institutions known as District Agricultural Associations. The day-to-day operations of the facilities fall under the jurisdiction of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Fairground facilities provide more than cotton candy, corn dogs and Ferris wheel rides: They are emergency operations centers; temporary housing for people who have been evacuated and/or lost their homes; secure housing for horses, livestock and other animals during emergencies; and, most importantly, a staging facility for firefighting crews and equipment.

Like so much we take for granted in the Golden State, fairground facilities have not had sustaining investment for years, sometimes decades. Sadly, there are no plans to do so.

In fact, the state is seeking to shut down or otherwise disinvest from them, even while utilizing these spaces to protect the health and welfare of firefighting crews doing battle in the current, disastrous fire season.

The governor must do more to preserve these critical state facilities, but instead he is asking CDFA to begin the process of "offloading" these critical community assets.

In some respects, this is the natural culmination of years of state disinterest in maintaining the facilities and the people who depend on them. In fact, state funding has been largely eliminated and CDFA staff involvement in providing oversight has also been significantly reduced. Fairs responded to these reductions by deferring needed maintenance and with a debilitating atrophying of critical, community-based facilities.

It is important to note that the Legislature in 2017 recognized the distress fairs were experiencing and provided an opportunity for them to receive a portion of the proceeds from sales taxes collected at fair events. Though this funding has been collected for a couple of years, it is unforgivable that these funds have not been released to the fairs. Instead of pushing out these sales tax dollars as quickly as possible, CDFA has put in place a cumbersome process by which a fair must jump over hurdles to obtain these monies.

Similar to so many enterprises, with the onslaught of COVID-19, fairs have had to cancel events. Collectively, fairs lost approximately $98 million through June, even while still having to perform as COVID surge and evacuation centers, as has been the case in my own Mariposa County.

The state, meanwhile, is pushing the burden of identifying new fair governance structures back onto counties, rather than undertaking a reinvestment plan. This lack of state leadership is disheartening, shortsighted and fundamentally irresponsible, when you consider the importance of fairground facilities in combating wildfires.

Fortunately, those threatened by the wildfires have been able to utilize the network of fairs during past years and especially during the recent devastating weeks. I am afraid if the state does not provide a viable investment plan, these facilities may not be available to meet the "call to action" next year, when we see another round of ferocious fires.

What then?

(Kevin Cann is a member of the Mariposa County Board of Supervisors and former chair of the Rural County Representatives of California. He may be contacted at kcann@mariposacounty.org.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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