Crowds Up at Gallatin County Fair (copy)

Fairgoers enjoy the rides at the Gallatin County Fair in this Chronicle file photo.

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The Big Sky Country State Fair returns next week, but the road to this year’s iteration was filled with doubt.

The 2021 Big Sky Country State Fair runs Wednesday through Sunday at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds. The Gallatin County Commission canceled last year's fair in late May due to the pandemic, with the cancellation coming around two months before the fair’s start date. But fairgrounds Manager Dennis Voellner found little comfort in that cushion of time.

“There was an emptiness,” Voellner said. “It really felt like you had lost something that you weren’t going to get back.”

Voellner said the biggest challenge with the fair, pandemic or not, is planning an event of that scale — with the Big Sky Country State Fair usually attracting around 40,000 people — which takes place a year out or longer from when the fair is supposed to happen.

When the time came to plan this year’s fair, Voellner said that by March he wasn’t sure if the Big Sky Country State Fair would even happen. Gallatin County Commissioner Scott MacFarlane, who acts as a liaison from the county commission to the fair, added that ever-shifting safety regulations from the state and the county health department created a lot of uncertainty on how to get the fair off the ground.

“It was hard to keep up with,” MacFarlane said. “So how do you plan something that is hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment and thousands of people coming together and everyone having uncertainties?”

Fortunately, many of the contracts from last year’s fair, which were made around December 2019, rolled over to this year. But there wasn’t a guarantee that every act or vendor would show up.

Some attractions, like a petting zoo and a hypnotist, were canceled less than two weeks before this year’s start date. Landing big ticket entertainment, like hip hop artist Nelly or country music staple Trace Adkins, can take up to three years of planning and negotiating, Voellner said.

Furthermore, the fair operated at a loss last year, Voellner said. But the Big Sky Country State fair wasn’t alone. The entire agricultural fair industry suffered.

Marla Calico, CEO and president of the International Association of Fairs and Expos, said that in an average year, ag fairs bring in around $4.6 billion.

Only 10% of fairs across the country operated in some form — like drive-thru or virtual fairs — during 2020. When you extrapolate the numbers, Calico said, the loss from a kneecapped fair season comes out to nearly $4 billion.

Some fairgrounds around the country, including the Gallatin County Fairgrounds, found other ways to generate revenue, Calico said. Some offered polling places, served as vaccination sites or other rental options to churn some kind of revenue.

The Gallatin County Fairgrounds housed vaccinations from January to June, delivering roughly 38,000 shots. Gallatin County Emergency Management paid rental costs to the fairgrounds for the usage of three buildings during that time.

“There was no way that any of those things could make up for that loss, because there simply was not that kind of a revenue stream,” Calico said.

This year’s fair features a new attraction of sorts: a mobile vaccination clinic. Fairgoers can get vaccinated free of charge at the A gate entrance Thursday-Saturday.

The Big Sky Country State Fair will cost around $800,000 this year. If everything goes to plan, the fair would walk away with roughly $80,000 in profit, Voellner said.

“Hard to make sense of that, isn’t it? To roll that big of dice and walk away with that amount,” Voellner said. “The idea is we want to remain a platform that most people can afford to go to.”

This year’s fair features returning staples, along with new attractions like an American Ninja Warrior obstacle course put on by American Minor League Ninja. The carnival, a perennial staple of the Big Sky Country State Fair, has not escaped unscathed either.

North Star Amusements handles the carnival at the fair. Owner Riley Cooke said that their entire fair season was canceled in 2020, which nearly shuttered the business. He had to lay off 40 employees. When he made calls to employees this year, only five came back.

“Everybody’s got a labor problem, whether it’s on Main Street or McDonald’s,” Cooke said.

Both Voellner and Cooke said that in years prior, people would rely on the carnival coming into town for summer income. Finding someone to work was as easy as a ride operator walking up, and asking for a gig on a particular piece of equipment.

But now those workers are gone. Cooke has relied on foreign workers granted work visas through the H-2B program for years, but now those workers — who are primarily from Mexico — make up the bulk of his ride operating workforce.

The H-2B program offers non-agricultural workers a chance to work in the United States and has a cap on how many workers a business can get. A lottery system determines how many workers his business receives.

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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at amiller@dailychronicle.com or by phone at 406-582-2648.

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