Tradition, progress challenge Delaware State Fair

DOVER — It has been written countless times how important tradition is to the Delaware State Fair.

With this ever-changing world we live in, the fair’s leaders do all they can to embrace the past and step cautiously into the future.

“It’s a challenge we face every year,” said William J. DiMondi, general manager of the Delaware State Fair.

The 97th annual fair starts Thursday and runs through July 30.

The planning runs the gamut from livestock and vegetable entries and exhibits to free entertainment on the grounds and widely anticipated grandstand shows.

From the Editor logo copy copy“How do we remain true to our roots but, by the same token, how do we attract and enhance our patron base to include the millenials and other generations that might not otherwise be drawn simply because of our agricultural roots?” said Mr. DiMondi.

When you walk in the main gates and stay to the right, it is primarily a showcase of all things agricultural in Delaware. Delawareans show about 3,000 animals annually at the show.

A large food court divides the ag side from the midway carnival atmosphere. Last year, Wade Shows reported $1.1 million in gross revenues from the fair.

Last year, the Delaware State Fair had 311,000 visitors — its second best 10-day attendance figure.

The future of the fair, said Mr. DiMondi, is not one of dramatic change.

“It really is doing what we’re doing this year — a Jumbotron, The Loft (concert) experience, raising the bar in terms of the quality of the food offerings,” he said. “It’s just incremental growth of doing the job that we’re doing.”

The fair (as 77 percent shareholder) no longer receives dividends from the Harrington Raceway as it had during the boom years of slots gambling and used to build new barns and structures. Two years ago, the fair renovated the plaza — the “social mecca” of the fairgrounds — in its last big building project.

“The fair has to live within its own means now,” he said. “The way we pay our bills now is by selling tickets, getting people through the gates and watching our expenses.”

The fair has raised gate admission prices this year to meet the challenges while investing in new grounds entertainment such as an acrobatic pogo team.

“As a nonprofit, getting people through the gates and have them ride the rides and whatever they do in terms of spending money with our vendors is a very significant challenge,” he said.

One of the fair’s greatest worries is its grandstand shows, finding the right mix of genres and carrying on the tradition of popular country music shows.

Going into November, the fair had only one country act — Alabama.

With second years planned for two country music festivals (Delaware Junction and Big Barrel), the country audience appeared to be sated.

But by January, both had been canceled and the fair found an opportunity.

“We said, how do we fill that vacuum and how do we return to our wheelhouse and strength which is country,” said Mr. DiMondi.

The fair found a date that worked for popular country band Little Big Town (which already would be in the Philadelphia area in July) and Jake Owen who will perform Wednesday on the eve of the fair opening.

Mr. DiMondi said the fair has been hurt by the boom of country festivals all over the world.

Consider that names such as Brad Paisley and Luke Bryan, popular with the Delaware fair crowd, now are asking “three-quarters of a million dollars as a base guarantee and a percentage on top of that,” he said.

What once was a $350,000 show for the “best of the best” for the 10,000-seat fair isn’t available anymore.

“That has turned the land of plenty to slim pickings to a certain degree,” he said.

And, Mr. DiMondi said, the fair is mindful not to take shows that would drive up ticket prices or create financial risks.

As you read through the Official Program for the Delaware State Fair in today’s edition, you’ll see contemporary Christian, classic rockers and pop acts in addition to the popular and legacy country acts and traditional demolition derby and monster truck show in the grandstand lineup.

“It’s a little bit for everyone,” he said. “Long story short, that’s how the state fair has been able to draw 300,000 people in Southern Delaware in the final 10 days of July.”

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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