Disappointment and money worries for hundreds of vendors after Alaska State Fair cancels

Colton Brooks and Hailey Keil at the 2019 Palmer State Fair (Photo courtesy of Bonnia Honkola)

A week after the state of Alaska officially reopened, the Alaska State Fair in Palmer announced that this year’s event would be canceled.

With the fair still months away, the decision takes away a major source of income from hundreds of vendors. Chase Eckert is the operations manager for Golden Wheel Amusements, a major operator at the fair. He’s worried about the season.

“It’s looking pretty bleak,” he said. 

Eckert says the fair accounts for a large portion of the company’s annual income, and in any case, most other large festivals around the state have already been canceled. The loss will affect a lot of workers: seasonally, he says he employs up to 350 people. 

Read more about the coronavirus, politics, culture and the economy in Alaska.

“It is many people’s first jobs especially in our foods in our games. We employ a lot of young high school students. A lot of kids on summer break or summer break from college,” he said. 

Fair organizers say it was necessary to make the decision to cancel early. While many of the largest fairs around the country have canceled their fall events, not all of them have. The Texas and New York state fairs, two of the nation’s largest, are tentatively scheduled for the fall. 

But organizers of Alaska’s fair are playing it more cautiously. A sudden outbreak could force a last-minute cancellation and put hundreds of thousands of dollars of expenses at risk, said fair manager Jerome Hertel. 

“There’s a lot of artists, you know, they’re guaranteed fees for contracts. There’s advertising campaigns that needed to be implemented, first contracts for services performed during the fair, the vendors are needing to purchase product, you know, well in advance of the fair. They need the proper time for planning,” he said. 

If organizers and vendors start paying those fees, only to have a last-minute cancellation, all those costs would be lost, which Hertel said could have an even more devastating effect than a lost year of revenue. 

“Those would have a devastating financial impact on the fair, of course, and really affect the survivability of fair,” he said. 

Organizers are quick to point to ways they’ve already started reorienting towards a different kind of summer that will hopefully minimize the crowds. Hertel says there could be opportunities to divide what people know as the Alaska State Fair into component parts. A 4-H livestock auction could be held one weekend, for example, while the carnival rides could happen another week. 

“Can we turn it into, you know, a smaller, more manageable event that it’s safer for the public? And so we need the time to be able to plan that also,” said Hertel. 

Hertel is hoping that vendors will get opportunities to make up some of those costs without the risk of a last-minute cancelation. 

To a limited extent, they’ve already started. The fairgrounds are hosting regular drive-in movies and are planning for a regular food-truck event with more ideas to come. 

Meanwhile, Facebook group called the Mat-Su Community Fair, which aims to organize a community-run fair at a different venue, had garnered over 2,300 followers from the time of the announcement of the cancellation until Monday evening. 

It’s a strategy that might work for business owners who face huge loss of income. Bonnie Honkola, the owner of Pioneer Peak Pretzels, a longtime fair vendor, said she felt three emotions after the announcement: sadness, regret, and relief. 

Part of that relief was due to the early cancellation, which saved her from having to make tough decisions to balance making money with keeping her customers and staff of 12 safe in the small 14 by 20-foot stand. But she took the news of the cancellation stoically. 

“Did we like it? No! Does it make us sad? Yes. Are we going to be poor? Of course, you know, I mean, it is what it is,” she said. 

Honkola said her business was getting ready to celebrate its 25th year at the fair, which previously was the only place that her business sold food. Now, she says, she’s considering diversifying. 

“This has been a catalyst for us to consider taking the show on the road and we’ve sent out some feelers for it and realized that that maybe, you know, an alternative for us,” she said. 

With the cancellation made early, there is still time for her to plan for that scenario instead of focusing on a fair that might not happen.