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Despite pain of canceled NY State Fair, allure continues in new ways

If this were any other year, New Yorkers would be chowing down on sausage sandwiches and pizza frites, while strolling through the Midway of the New York State Fair in Syracuse. But for the first time since World War II, the fair, like many others across the country, has been canceled, due to COVID 19.

Without hundreds of thousands of visitors tramping through buildings and thoroughfares, it’s quiet on the 375 acres that make up the New York State fairgrounds. The hum of interstate traffic nearby is occasionally drowned out by a passing truck speeding along paths that should be chock full of fairgoers. Geese fly over the Indian village, and the grass looks lush and green. Water from a recent rainstorm flows freely off roofs onto empty thoroughfare.

A stripped down fair staff is still at work. Director Troy Waffner sat at his massive desk, a little down.

"The fair would have been going on right now,” Waffner said. “And there’s a lot of staff here who drive to work, and just it’s sad and in its own right."

This would undoubtedly been a record-breaking year, attendance wise; the first 18-day exposition in state fair history.

"We had a great fair planned, a really great fair,” Waffner said. “Great music. Changing things up again programmatically, we were doing everything we could to keep drawing numbers."

But now, crickets.

It’s not just fairgoers and employees missing the massive event that marks the end of summer in central New York. Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon laments losing the “ka-ching” of the estimated $1.5 million economic impact the fair brings to town.

"It’s a body blow,” McMahon said. “We factor it in. Usually around this time of year, you look forward to the sales tax payment that represents that period of time, to see how successful it was compared to the previous year. Now, we’re not going to have that stimulus.”

And there’s also the thousands of locals who use the fair to beef up their income.

"People use vacation time, they’re at work getting paid at their other job, and going there for two weeks making $2,000-4,000, maybe more in some cases,” McMahon said. “That’s all extra money that gets back into the economy.”

There are attempts to keep the state fair flair alive. Vendors are offering state fair-style food in one of the big parking lots next to the fairgrounds, calling it Orange Lot Madness. The American Dairy Association North East has been holding a virtual New York State Fair, offering visits to dairy farms and milkshake competitions online. They’re even unveiling the popular butter sculpture on their website, according to Dairy Princess Natalie Vernon.

Credit American Dairy Association North East
American Dairy Association North East
The 2020 Butter Sculpture at the New York State Fairgrounds. From left to right, New York State Dairy Princess Natalie Vernon, dairy farmer Lisa Porter of Porterdale Farms (Adams Center) and Richard Ball, state commissioner of agriculture.

"Really, the goal is to get the normal fairgoers and fair fans involved as much as we can and give them that fair experience from home,” Vernon said.

And Waffner is hearing about other ways fair lovers are filling that fair-free gap.

“At their houses they’re having family over and cooking sausage sandwiches and having wine slushies, and Byrne Dairy milk,” Waffner said. “So, you know you’ve built something if people are going to that time and energy to really try to relive it on that scale, when they can’t have it on a big scale.”

Waffner tries to look at the bright side.

"Well, certainly if there’s a silver lining, I’m not putting any weight on right now,” he said.

But he’s also looking to the future. There’s already a date for the 2021 fair; August 20 through September 6, and the fair countdown has begun.

"It’s gonna be a big fair with a lot of zing and a lot of zow and a lot of wowie,” Waffner said. “I definitely think people will come out next year because they’ve missed it for a year.”

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.