CENTRE HALL — The employees at Brother’s Pizza here don’t have to look outside for signs that the Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair season has arrived.
They can tell on Sunday, the earliest day to set up big items, by the number of patrons coming in the door. If they’d peek outside, they’d see the long string of traffic bumper to bumper in front of their shop along Pennsylvania Avenue waiting to get into Gate 3 to unload kitchen and porch gear.
“This whole weekend will be nuts for us,” said Net Wolfe, the restaurant’s head waitress, on Friday.
As the Grange Fair starts, thousands of people will descend on the fairgrounds to camp, relax and play, eat and socialize. The influx of people — upward of 25,000 a day — come with their dollars, credit cards and checkbooks for shopping, buying fair food, playing games and riding rides.
And the Grange Fair itself, taking in revenue from tent rentals, admissions, parking and fees from the scores of vendors and thousands of exhibits, has recycled more than $9 million back in the economy over the past five years, according to tax records, and is an economic engine in an area of the county best known for its bucolic charm and rural heritage.
“It is important to the local economy, because of the large percentage of monies that are brought in get turned in right back to the community,” said Darlene Confer, the Grange Fair manager. “It’s not just Centre Hall or Potter Township, it’s the county. When you look at the numbers and see how much is put right back out into the economy, it’s significant.”
There’s a misconception out there, Confer says, the Grange Fair is rich, its bank accounts spilling over with money taken in from the fair itself and other events throughout the year.
The Grange Fair’s finances, typed out on IRS 990 forms submitted in the past few years, show it does take in quite a bit of money from the fair and its side events, such as separate horse and dog shows that bring in hundreds of animals. The tax records show the fair organization spends quite a bit, too.
Revenues — from parking, admissions, tent rentals, fees paid by vendors and more — added up to more than $2.1 million for the period Oct. 1, 2011, to Sept. 30, 2012, which represents the most recent figures available. Expenses weren’t too far behind, at just more than $2 million.
That left the fair with a net of $138,729 that went toward getting this year’s event started.
The fair’s revenues have grown steadily over the past five years, $1.82 million in 2008, to $2.162 million last year. The 2011 year saw revenues top $3 million with the help of $1.1 million in grants and operational revenues of $1.9 million.
All told, the fair generated almost $11 million in revenue during that time frame.
The importance of the fair is demonstrated when comparing other attractions’ financial data.
The renowned Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, which attracts thousands to downtown State College for a few days each July, pulled in revenues of $687,178 from October 2010 to September 2011, according to its most recent tax data. Expenses totaled $642,446, according to the tax form.
The Grange Fair makes more money than the Clearfield County Fair, which tends to have more well-known musicians playing on its grandstand. That fair brought in $1.18 million in revenue from October 2010 to September 2011, according to its most recent tax form and spent about $1.19 million. It finished in the hole about $10,000, the records show.
The Bloomsburg Fair, one of the largest in the Eastern U.S., is an even bigger economic engine for its area: It raked in more than $5 million in revenues and had $3.67 million in expenses from October 2011 to September 2012, its most recent tax form shows.
The millions of dollars that flow into the Grange Fair’s coffers come in various forms.
People pay fees to rent the beloved tents or RV spaces. Vendors pay a fee that’s determined by the square footage of the space they occupy. Horticulture exhibitors pay a buck for each flower, craft, food item, etc., they enter, and this year, the Grange Fair members are expecting more than 5,000 entries.
Visitors pay to park — this year it’s $6 for daily parking, up from $5 last year — and admission is $6 per person, again up from $5 last year. A parking pass for the week is $16, up from $15 last year, and a weekly admission pass is $15.
Last year, the fair’s revenues included $90,000 in grant money that went toward purchasing large fans for the new equine arena and some advertising and marketing initiatives. Confer said the grants were from the state and the Centre County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“That money has already been returned to the state, if you look at the number of shows that come in,” said Confer, referring to show attendees putting money into the economy by getting local hotel rooms, buying meals and gassing up their vehicles.
The fair was the recipient of a $1 million grant three years ago that was used to build the state-of-the-art horse arena, which was completed in 2011. It’s considered one of the best in the country, and the fair organizers are expecting big returns because of its prominence.
It’s empty only about two weekends from April through November, and it most recently hosted the Pennsylvania Quarter Horse Association show last month. Horse enthusiasts came from well beyond Pennsylvania, including Canada and even Australia.
“It has become, in a very short time, one of the premier equine arenas on the East Coast and we’re very, very, very proud of that,” said Shelly Weaver, the fair board’s equine chairwoman.
The fair generated $240,000 for the local economy through last year’s livestock sale. Confer said it made $240,000 for the children who sell the animals, and some of the children use their proceeds of the sale to buy the animals for the next year’s project.
Another important cost that comes from the pockets of fairgoers — tent rentals, for $900 apiece, $400 for a porch, and $180 to 200 for an RV spot — finds its way back into the local economy, too. The proceeds from the rentals total $457,000, Confer said.
“It takes all of the tent rent and RV rent to pay for people to run this fair,” said Confer, noting that she issued 375 W-2 forms last year and paid out more than $480,000 in payroll.
The payroll represented nearly a quarter of the $2 million expenses last year, though most of the employees are the folks who work the duration of the fair at the parking gate, doing security or a number of other jobs. Five percent of the employees work from the spring through the fall maintaining the grounds, Confer said.
The Grange Fair’s expenses go out into the local economy in other ways.
For instance, the fair awarded $70,000 in prize money to show and exhibit winners — adults, teens and children — last year. The contests include first-place purses of $120 for the best parade floats, $60 for the top winners in the tractor pulls to $7 for the best pumpkin pie.
“Some kids cash their checks right away so they can enjoy the fair,” Confer said.
The fair spent $110,159 last year for people to enjoy musical acts.
Some of the fair’s expenses go into local government offices.
Centre Hall and Potter Township, the two municipalities that house the fairgrounds, split $40,000 in amusement tax revenue the Grange Fair paid out last year. The tax calls for a 10 percent fee on events within the borough and township that charge for admission or parking.
So, for the Grange Fair, each car that rolls in next week and pays $6 to park will contribute 60 cents. Each municipality takes half, and the money goes into each’s general fund, said the secretaries, Beth Araujo, of Centre Hall, and Brenda Burd, of Potter Township.
The most expensive utility is sewer service: The fair pays $4,618 a month to the Centre Hall-Potter Sewer Authority, Confer said, and there’s a surcharge for every gallon over the daily limit of 27,500 gallons. In January, that might be an extra $150 payment, she said, but for August, when the fair is full swing and toilet handles flush all day long, the bill could be between $21,000 and $22,000, Confer said.
The water bill, to Centre Hall’s water authority, is lower, topping at around $11,000 for the peak time around the fair, she said.
For the vendors selling their wares with thousands of potential customers within reach, the Grange Fair can be a bonanza.
Lois Watson, owner of Miller’s Hoagies in Milesburg, opens a satellite shop at the fair and stays open until 11 p.m., unless she runs out of food.
Business at the fair is “very good,” she said. “Some days, it’s just non-stop.”
Brenda Confer, who owns Confer’s Jewelers in Bellefonte and isn’t related to Darlene Confer, will not set up a satellite shop at the fair this year because her store’s insurance carrier found it to be too risky a venture.
It’s the first time the downtown store won’t have presence at the fair in 24 years. Having a presence here has paid off for the jewelry store over the years, as that’s where they developed a clientele of people who’ve since moved out of the area but still return from the fair.
“We’ve made a lot of good friends and a lot of great customers at Grange Fair,” Brenda Confer said.
Specific data about the Grange Fair, such as how much a visitor would spend or how money is generated by each dollar invested, isn’t available, said Betsey Howell, the director of the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau. That study, an economic impact analysis, would cost a pretty penny, she said.
Nevertheless, “It’s a great event for the area,” Howell said. “I think one of the most important things when we’re promoting it is reminding the national public that this is the only tenting fair of its kind in the nation. We believe it deserves national attention because of the kind of fair it is.”
Back at Brother’s Pizza in Centre Hall, the Grange Fair and the people’s desires for their fair food favorites will slow down business during the week. Accordingly, the shop’s hours will be trimmed. It also gives the workers here a chance to contribute their dollars toward the fair, such as the food.
“We love it,” said Wolfe, the pizza shop’s head waitress.