By Matt Reese
To say it has been a challenging stretch for the Ohio State Fair and Ohio Expo Center in the last couple of years is probably an understatement. The extended period of having no events, or only partial events, labor shortages, supply chain issues, and skyrocketing costs has taken a very heavy toll.
Prior to these extensive hardships for the Ohio State Fair, in the summer of 2019, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced the creation of a task force to develop and recommend a long-term vision for the Ohio Expo Center.
“At the Ohio State Fair and other events that occur here, there are countless ways to have fun. We need to find ways to keep that excitement going all year long,” DeWine said in 2019. “I am announcing the formation of a task force, called ‘Expo 2050,’ to take stock of all of the great things going on at the Ohio Expo Center, as well as the Ohio History Connection and Mapfre Stadium, and to develop a strategic vision for the entire area.”
The 20-member Expo 2050 Task Force was charged with reviewing the Expo experience, including the assets and activities of the Ohio Expo Center, the Ohio History Connection, and Mapfre Stadium, and developing ideas for getting the most use and enjoyment out of this state land in the future. Alternative suggestions for some of the grounds include athletic fields and a Columbus Crew training facility.
In 2022, fairgoers, exhibitors and vendors around the state are looking forward to what they hope to be a return to a full fair Ohio State Fair and a bright future ahead at the current location — but a successful future will require some change and significant investment, said Ty Higgins, senior director of communications and media relations for Ohio Farm Bureau. This winter, nine major Ohio agriculture groups released their recommendations to the Expo 2050 Task Force to modernize the Ohio Expo Center and State Fair. These proposals were sent to the DeWine Administration, the Ohio Expo and State Fair Commission, the State of Ohio, and other public sector leaders and influencers as well.
“Nobody knows our part of the fairgrounds as well as we do in Ohio agriculture. When you form a task force, everything is on the table. The first things we wanted to make sure they do as a Task Force is to keep the State Fair in Columbus. No. 2 is do not lessen the footprint of the Ohio Expo Center more than you already have. We need all of that space for parking, camping and other activities happening there. The third thing is, invest in the Expo Center. It is a showplace for agriculture,” Higgins said. “Agriculture is one of the largest investors in the Ohio State Fair and it is our one time to showcase what farmers and Ohio agriculture do throughout the state throughout the year. For some fairgoers that might be the only time they are around a farmer or around livestock for the entire year. It is our chance to make inroads with the consumer and talk about all of the great things we are doing in agriculture. It is really important for us as an industry to make our voices heard with this Task Force and bring to light some of the things we feel are necessary in the short and long term to help the Expo Center overall maintain its viability and keep the heritage of agriculture and everyone involved with the Ohio State Fair.”
The groups making the recommendations included the Ohio AgriBusiness Association, Ohio Cattlemen’s Association, Ohio Corn & Wheat Growers Association, Ohio Dairy Producers Association, Ohio Farm Bureau, Ohio Pork Council, Ohio Poultry Association, Ohio Sheep Improvement Association, and Ohio Soybean Association. They put forth their objectives in areas such as the mission and vision for the Expo Center, land use and optimization, the overall experience for youth and the general public, and funding, governance and operations so the ideas could be incorporated into the state’s new Vision Plan.
The facilities of the Ohio Expo Center are dated and in need of numerous upgrades to fully capitalize on the potential moving forward.
“I think the city of Columbus would want to keep it in Columbus when you look at the Quarter Horse Congress, the Good Guys Car Show, the Boat and RV Show, the Home and Garden Show, and the Beef Expo, all bringing people in from all over the state all year round. This is still a money making option for the city and for the state if we get back to more normal looking events. When you look at the infrastructure for the fair, it is all about the experience for the fairgoer. As far as the agricultural side of the fairgrounds there are a lot of things in need of improvements and enhancements for the flow of traffic. Some of the buildings on the grounds need a second look and maybe a redo altogether,” Higgins said. “One of my favorite buildings is the round building where the commodity groups display and serve the food items they prepare. The Poultry Association has the Thanksgiving dinner at the State Fair which is just a preview of November for me and I get it every time I’m there. The pork industry has the pork chop on a stick and, of course, the dairy industry is serving up milkshakes and ice cream. It is air conditioned so people want to go in there but it gets over crowded. It is outdated and not serving its purpose anymore. We’d like to take another look at building a new facility to showcase the food aspect of what we do.”
Across the grounds other facilities are even older.
“I grew up in the dairy products building. I spent my childhood for 17 days during the State Fair in that building. When I was old enough, I dipped ice cream in that building. I’m 44 years old and that building is a whole lot older than I am. We’d like to see that building replaced completely.
Cooper Arena is just outdated and needs work and if the dairy products building can be a part of that it would be great as well,” he said. “Most of the other commodity groups are housed with Ohio Farm Bureau and Nationwide in the Ag and Hort Building. That building used to be a showcase. It had a restaurant upstairs, a smorgasbord. It was one of the great stops. Those stairs have been shut down for years and it is just dilapidated.”
Beyond the buildings, other infrastructure improvements are needed.
“In 2021 they had the Good Guys Car show and they ran out of parking, even in a down year. We’re going to need to look at parking. We want to make the viaduct sustainable and more reliable and useful. We are also asking for a new multi-use ag building where agriculture can house everybody at the same time with a traffic pattern that easily flows in and out to give the fairgoers an experience they will never forget as they learn about Ohio’s most important industry. Some of these are short term and we’d like to see them done right now and some are longer term larger projects,” Higgins said. “This is going to be a large dollar amount but when you look at what the State Fair and Expo Center could bring in with the enhancements and the return on investment, we’ll see more events there and more revenue brought in.”
In addition, Ohio agriculture recommended:
- Redesigned parking throughout the fairgrounds, including new parking garages, to meet the needs of the fair and the numerous other agricultural and non-ag events at the Expo Center.
- Conducting an evaluation of the safety and security at the Expo Center and State Fair. Developing and implementing recommendations to ensure the well-being of all who engage with the venue.
- Building a new multi-use agriculture facility to provide flexibility and needed space for multiple events.
- Maintaining the Ohio Expo Center and Ohio State Fair’s mission continue to honor and celebrate its agrarian heritage and its strong tradition of the development of young people through 4-H and FFA, among other youth activities. Creating awareness about the vast opportunities for Ohio’s consumers, careers and celebrating the food and agriculture sectors are essential elements of that mission.
- Preserving the historical presence of the Ohio State Fair in Columbus and maintaining its easily accessible location. It is well documented that the most dynamic and successful state fairs across the country are located in highly populated, urban areas, so moving the venue would be detrimental to the mission and to the financial viability of the State Fair.
To generate sustainable funding to support the Expo Center and State Fair, Ohio’s agricultural groups suggested that the State of Ohio/General Assembly pass a multiyear funding measure in the state budget to improve facilities, grounds and infrastructure, as well as the implementation of a pricing study to ensure that it is competitive and properly positioned in the market to attract more events throughout the year. Other priorities from the group can be seen in the proposed recommendations outline at: ofbf.org/app/uploads/2022/02/CRT-Expo-Recommendations-Final.pdf.
“As industry partners, we remain committed to working with the State to ensure the sustainability and success of the Expo Center and State Fair,” the coalition wrote. “We respectfully request that Gov. DeWine, the Task Force, the Commission, and other public sector leaders respond to these recommendations with action and the urgency and seriousness warranted.”