County fair attendance drops to lowest level in modern history

The 2019 Sonoma County Fair marked the sixth -straight year for sagging attendance, and organizers are blaming highly publicized mass shootings as well as generational loss of appetite for Americana.

Paid attendance dipped to 125,802, nearly 75,000 fewer than attended in 2013 - its’s most recent peak. This year’s attendance was likely the lowest in the modern history of the fair, which used to occupy a longer stretch of the Sonoma summer.

Fair Board President Rob Muelrath said fires contributed to previous attendance drops, but he thinks based on conversations with friends and residents the recent spate of shootings, particularly the one at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, contributed to the decrease this year.

But Muelrath also acknowledged the six-year trend as potentially part of a larger phenomenon, one evident even with a glance into his own memory of the fair.

“When I showed animals, people had to pay to get into horse races,” Muelrath said. “And you looked up at the grandstands, and it was full … down below, it was full.”

Today, horse racing is in decline, Muelrath said, pointing to a $1 million drop in revenue since 2007. Fair officials don’t yet have the full revenue picture for this year, although they know the carnival brought in $1.62 million, a small dip from last year, and the livestock auction hit $1.69 million - more than a year ago.

“It will be interesting to see what happens when we look at our revenues,” Muelrath said.

Fair CEO Becky Bartling focused on the positives, saying success is measured by more than just attendance. She said the rodeo and monster truck show drew large crowds.

“When you look at it, it’s definitely a success,” Bartling said. “Attendance was down a little bit, but overall, it was a great fair.”

Fair officials could have said the same thing every year since 2013, when fair attendance recently peaked at 199,826. That’s also when attendance last grew year-over-year, partially because the number of days has been steadily whittled to 11 from a recent high of 17 days in 2012.

Like Muelrath, Bartling partially blamed recent, high-profile shootings in Gilroy, El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. She said she believes many fairs in California saw attendance down this year due to the mass shootings.

The past two years, though, have featured a mixed bag among coastal states. The San Diego County Fair had attendance as high as ever this year, enjoying steady attendance growth through the years.

A county fair in Washington State set a record this summer, according to a variety of news reports.

But Bay Area fairs have suffered with low attendance, and the California State Fair had its lowest attendance in years last year, something officials blamed on heat, according to the Sacramento Bee.

“There were concerns among folks … about going out to public places,” Bartling said, adding that the fair stepped up security in the wake of the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting that left three dead and a dozen more wounded.

That security boost was proactively communicated, but Bartling said the fair will do more in the future to market the event as a safe destination for fun.

They also need to do more to attract younger fairgoers or potential fairgoers, Bartling said. She agreed with Muelrath that horse racing was no longer a big draw, and there’s more than a whisper that the event won’t be long for the fair. It won’t go away in 2020, Muelrath said.

“In the next three to five years, I’m not so sure,” he said.

Bartling was excited about the success of the Brew Fest this year. She said the fair would look at moving the Sonoma County Harvest Fair to the overall county fair next year. This year’s Harvest Fair starts Oct. 4.

“We’re looking at things that get the younger generation there,” Bartling said, before adding that the fair will still honor its agricultural roots. “Sonoma County is an agricultural community. We celebrate that at the fair. We help further that. It’s a very important piece of our fair.”

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