Saturday, July 29, 2000

County fairs

Clinging to days before suburbia

        What would a county fair be like without enough farms?

        Answer: the Hamilton County Fair.

        Yet the threat increases a little more each year in Warren and Butler counties, two of Ohio's faster growing areas and suburban enclaves.

        The Butler County Fair, which ends today, is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Last week, the Warren County Fair completed its 149th year.

        Though both events still attract large crowds, they face the same problem: surviving suburbia. It's not going to go away.

        The county fair is a slice of Ohioana and a reflection of our rural roots. When I drive around the two counties these days, I see fewer farms, developing small towns and less emphasis on rural heritage. New homes are popping up in unlikely places as people push farther away from the city.

        In time, the change might be felt at the fairgrounds, which would have a different flavor. When this has happened elsewhere, livestock has disappeared, among other things.

        In the past 25 years, Butler County has lost more than 40,000 acres of farmland to residential, commercial and industrial development. Extension agent Steve Bartels says Butler has fewer than 849 farms, compared with 1,119 in 1974. “Our farmland is disappearing,” Mr. Bartels said. “Fortunately, it's not been felt at the fair.”

        Meanwhile, southern Warren County has become one of Ohio's busiest areas, brimming with shopping centers, hotels and big-business such as Procter & Gamble. Only the ghost of rural life exists in Deerfield Township, which has nearly $100 million in new development each year.

        Around the formerly small city of Mason, more than 60 percent of the population is between 14 and 49 — a retailer's dream but not necessarily a fair-lover's.

        Nevertheless, the Warren County Fair is prospering, partly because enough people have moved onto large lots in the county's unincorporated areas. They treat their land like mini farms.

        “Our number of farm animals is actually growing,” said Ed Wade, Warren County Fair Board president. “There was a time when their numbers were going down, but 4H is very popular. And we have a lot of people with five acres who bring goats and chickens — even llamas.

        “So for some period of time I don't expect anything but slow growth for our fair. But I realize that in the future, as subdivision lots get smaller, we could be affected. No question. We just hope that the five-acre developments continue.”

        About 55,000 people attended last week's fair, he said, compared with last year's 40,000, when fair week was uncomfortably hot and rainy.

        Butler County fair officials hope to reach the 100,000 attendance mark today. To help, they have aggressively promoted the fair and scheduled varied acts and events, including a rodeo, demolition derby (a favorite), an Elvis impersonator and a car show.

        Yet fair leaders realize they face challenges from a changing environment.

        “I'm sure that down the road, development will have an effect,” said Dan Martin, a fair board member. “But we have a strong 4H program in Butler County and a tradition with family farms.

        “At this point, development is not a big problem, but, like anything else, you can never say never.”

        Randy McNutt's column runs on Saturday. He may be reached at 860-7118 or at The Cincinnati Enquirer, 4820 Business Center Way, Cincinnati, OH 45246.


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