Battling years of decreased revenue, the Exchange Club of Macon decided Thursday there will be no Georgia State Fair next year. The decision calls into question the future of a midstate tradition that spans generations.
“I grew up in Macon and can remember as a child going to the fairgrounds several times in October,” said Don Johstono, president of the fair’s board of directors. “To me, it’s part of Macon’s heritage, Macon tradition.”
The state fair, which recently moved to the spring, has been held in Macon since 1851 and operated by the Exchange Club since 1942. In those 160 years, there have only been a handful of times the fair was canceled.
“That tradition speaks for itself,” Johstono said.
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While he would not disclose Thursday’s exact vote, Johstono said 72 of the 118 club members were present for the vote.
“There were votes in both directions,” he said. “It was close.”
One concern brought up before the vote was the cost of holding the fair. Johstono said pinpointing the exact reason certain members voted against holding the 2012 event would be pure speculation, but he also said the fair has not generated income above its expenses in recent years.
Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said he also has fond memories of the state fair, from participating in the fair’s bicycle parade as an elementary school student to taking his children to see the pigs, chickens and rabbits at Central City Park.
“It’s a sad turn of events,” he said of the 2012 cancellation. “(The state fair) is a long-standing tradition that a lot of people will miss, but I completely understand the decision of the Exchange Club being a financial one.”
The fair board does not disclose its financial information, but Johstono estimated that the 2011 fair drew 35,000 to 40,000 people, up a bit from 2010 attendance. That number is based on ticket sales, because there are no turnstiles or other ways to count attendance, he said.
“If this community continues not to support the things that are available to its citizens, they aren’t going to be here,” Johstono said. “It hurts my heart to see a city with the potential of Macon and all of these things could just whittle away.”
In an attempt to preserve the fair, the board presented a spending plan for the 2012 fair that would reduce costs by roughly 40 percent, Johstono said.
“It was a pretty dramatic cut,” he said, but even that overture was not enough to sway voting members to continue the fair next year.
Members voted via secret ballot after a nearly 45-minute discussion on topics such as the tradition of the annual event in the community, as well as other things the club might do if there wasn’t a fair and whether the fair might come back in future years.
“We can keep our fingers crossed,” Reichert said of the possibility of future fairs. “Unless there’s some fundamental change in the numbers they’re looking at, it’ll be hard to bring it back, but we can be hopeful.”
The fate of a 2013 fair likely won’t be known until July, when club members come together for their annual meeting and decide whether to hold a fair the following year.
Generally, the July meetings were simply protocol, Johstono said, “but as the economy has changed and our revenue has declined, there has been reason to reconsider” holding the fair. Members requested more time to consider the options this year, postponing the vote until Thursday.
The Georgia State Fair has been held annually since moving to Macon in 1851, with the exception of four years during the Civil War and in 2009, when the fair dates were moved from October to spring, according to the fair’s website. The Georgia National Fair in Perry is in October, and the state fair’s date change was to avoid having two midstate fairs that close together.
Once the state fair moved to the spring, it still came right on the heels of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, Reichert said, creating more competition for attendees and revenue.
The fair started in Stone Mountain in 1846, then moved to Atlanta in 1850 before settling in Macon.
A nonprofit organization, the Georgia State Fair donates all of its proceeds to charities in Middle Georgia.
Over the years, the fair has raised more than $5 million for charities, specifically those dealing with child abuse prevention.
To contact writer Caryn Grant, call 744-4347.