Grants could mean big improvements for Michigan county fairs

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Ionia fairgrounds. Image: Jeremy Thompson, Flickr

By Talitha Tukura Pam

Julia Arian had to look hard to find great food the last time she visited a county fair.

“There was only one dingy shelter that had a line that stretched out of the door serving food,” said Arian, a longtime fair enthusiast from Lansing, Michigan.

“The shelter was not appealing at all.”

Fortunately, the length of the line prompted her to try the food, “which ended up being fantastic!” she said.

Next time Arian may not have to look so hard. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is offering a chance for county fairs to apply for a $300,000 fund for grants to improve buildings. It requires a local match.

And county fairs are popular in Michigan.

“The state has an annual attendance of approximately 4.5 million attendees in a population of 10 million people,” said Lisa Reiff, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Fairs and Exhibition.

Most exhibitors are nonprofit organizations and income revenue is not high.

“The fairgrounds are community centered and are in use 52 weeks of the year hosting many different events like antique festivals, scout camps, livestock events, winter storage and even weddings,” Reiff said.

Fairs in Michigan go back to the 1800s. Lenawee County’s fairground is the oldest in the state, dating back to 1839.

“This grant is important to us because our structures are old and need a lot of work,” said Tara Andrix, the Lenawee County fair manager. “We are applying to fix the walls of our dairy barn and to drain the flooding on the north side of the grounds.”

The Calhoun County fairground was a recipient in 2016 and used the funds to paint parking space lines, install lights and create other parking demarcations.

“We pride ourselves in giving great fairs so, receiving the grant was good,” said Megan Hardy the fair director.

“We plan to reapply next year to work on plumbing, building construction and asphalt,” said Hardy.

“Fairs provide an opportunity for people to reconnect with their agricultural roots and offer teaching and leadership to youths through 4-H programs,” said Jennifer Holden, the communication director for the  Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Attending summer fairs are important multi-generational traditions.

Reiff attended her first fair when she was 8 days old.

“My parents are in their sixties now and have always worked on fairgrounds,” she said.

“Naturally, my siblings and I grew up to love and work on fairgrounds too.”

Reiff has attended almost all of the state’s county fairs.

“Every fair is unique, but special,” said Reiff, who is expecting her second child over the summer and intends to maintain that family tradition of early exposure to county fairs.

Successful grant applicants will be announced April 7.

Information, an application and submission criteria are available on the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development website. Those interested can also contact Cinda Karlik at karlikc@michigan.gov or 517-284-5723. Proposals should be sent to P.O. Box 30017, Lansing, MI 48909 and must be received (not postmarked) by 5 p.m. on Feb. 27.

(Editor’s note: This story was updated Feb. 24, 2017 to correctly identify the Lenawee County Fair.)

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