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Changing Demographics, Bloated Budgets Shape Changing Fair Landscape Across the Country

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Growing up in Delaware, Ohio, I always went to the county fair. Without fail, my little sister and I gorged on elephant ears, played carnival games and were flung about on the Tilt-a-Whirl.

Delaware County was country: Three of the four public high schools back then were largely rural. One high school, Buckeye Valley, actually had "Drive Your Tractor to School Day."

But since those days I, along with many of the kids I grew up with, have moved away from our rural hometown to urban environments. And we aren't alone. According to Census Bureau data, U.S. metro areas grew to a population of 269.9 million people in 2013, up about 2.3 million people from 2012. Metro areas grew faster than the U.S. as a whole between 2012 and 2013.

Delaware County has become more urban too. From 2000 to 2012, Delaware was the fastest-growing county in Ohio. Since I was born, Delaware's population has nearly tripled and now is about 180,000.

As the demographics of my hometown have changed, so too has the popularity of Delaware's blowout county fair. In 2010 the fair ran a $176,000 deficit. In 2011 the fair ran a much smaller deficit of $69,000. In 2012 Al Myers, the former county sheriff and a fair board member, told the Columbus Dispatch, "Delaware County, unfortunately, is transitioning from a rural to an urban area. We get less attendance from Delaware County residents than we have before."

Delaware County is not alone. In fact, many state fairs are struggling with low attendance and big deficits too.

After 160 years Michigan canceled its state fair in 2010 after running chronic deficits for years. In 2008 fewer than 220,000 people attended the fair, which needed $380,000 from the state to cover its losses, according to reports from the Associated Press.

In recent years the Illinois State Fair has drawn big crowds with big names, featuring performances from artists such as The Band Perry, Styx and more. In 2013 these performers helped the fair attract 960,000 attendees. But the fair still ran a huge loss last year, with spending at $10 million and revenues of only $6.5 million.

Fairs offer a nostalgic, week-long escape filled with freakish foods and a sense of community that hearkens back to a different time. But Michigan's example proves that their future is -- or should be -- uncertain, especially in states that already can't pay for things such as education and government pensions. ("Entertainment" isn't a core government service.)

Michigan has $598 in per-capita government-worker pension debt. And Illinois has a whopping $7,421 in per-capita government-worker pension debt.

As states, their residents and their budgets change, local and state fairs will have to evolve to stay solvent.

If they don't, fairs could go the way of drive-in movies and bowling alleys -- classic pieces of Americana that couldn't quite cut it in a changing world.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post erroneously stated that the Ohio State Fair lost more than $4 million in 2013. In fact, that figure referred to the losses of the Ohio Exposition Center, which hosts much more than the Ohio State Fair alone, though the figure should be closer to $3 million. The post has been updated accordingly. We regret the error.