Emily Scott helps unload donations from a car Thursday at the drive-thru Snohomish County Food Drive at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Emily Scott helps unload donations from a car Thursday at the drive-thru Snohomish County Food Drive at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

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Cancelled by COVID: Life without the Evergreen State Fair

How losing the county’s largest event affects vendors, students, businesses and local governments.

MONROE — Thursday would have been opening day at the Evergreen State Fair. But there were no rides, no giant pumpkins and no scones. Just a lone cowboy on stilts directing traffic.

No one stood waiting in the green tunnels leading to the fair gates. Instead, cars lined up outside to drop off food for those without during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some carried on the spirit of the fair by decorating their cars like floats — one driver draped their white pickup in ribbons from past fairs. Another used tarps to make a floppy-eared dog.

Snohomish County, which owns the fairgrounds, canceled the fair in May after deciding the event could not meet safety guidelines amid the pandemic — a decision that’s only been made a handful of times in the fair’s nearly 120-year history. It was called off for three years in a row during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and twice during World War II.

With an annual average of 350,000 visitors over 12 days, the Evergreen State Fair is the largest event in the county to be canceled amid the pandemic. The only other attraction that comes close to the fair’s draw is the Boeing Future of Flight Aviation Center, Snohomish County Councilman Sam Low said.

“But that’s open 365 days a year,” he added.

And the fair’s absence means more than missing out on fried food and carnival rides.

To the vendors, local businesses, the county and the city of Monroe, the 12 days in August and September bring business that accounts for big chunks of annual revenues. To fair goers, the grounds are a place where friends feel like family and a year’s worth of hard work is celebrated.

“This is something that’s part of our culture,” Monroe Mayor Geoffrey Thomas said. “It’s part of what we do here in Monroe. It’s one of those reminders that we’re in a different time.”

A float, created by the Greenhorns with live animals, delivers donations to volunteers on Thursday in Monroe. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A float, created by the Greenhorns with live animals, delivers donations to volunteers on Thursday in Monroe. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

For fair veteran Don Ballard, the cancellation really started sinking in about three weeks ago. By then, he’d normally have been out at the fairgrounds prepping barns for animal arrivals.

This would have been his 33rd year in a row attending the fair, and his 22nd overseeing the rabbit 4-H competition.

In the past three decades, Ballard has missed one day of the fair when he dropped his daughter off at college in Pullman.

This year, he’s mourning the loss of a chance to see his “fair family.”

“Working out there so many years, the other people who have as well are kind of like extended family,” Ballard said. “It’s like a big family reunion every year. Not actually seeing them this year is kind of sad.”

Marysville resident Jean Lindsey’s fair record rivals Ballard’s. She’s been involved for 20-some years, cycling through every position from exhibitor to superintendent.

“I love the fair. It’s one of our American traditions,” she said. “The community can come together and celebrate that they’ve made it through the year — sometimes it’s kind of a hard year.”

Lindsey said she’s been the “fair mom” for many 4-H competitors through the years.

Competing at the fair allows kids to bond with others over a shared interest, she said. Even if they don’t get a blue ribbon, everyone celebrates their accomplishments.

“It pushes them beyond their comfort zone so they get to test themselves,” Lindsey said.

Then, there’s the financial loss.

No fair means no youth livestock show, which left students across the county without a way to sell animals they’d invested months or years and hundreds of dollars in.

“It was a big economic hit for the kids,” Lindsey said. “They use the money earned through sales to continue their project the next year. Or my kids even used it to buy school clothes.”

A steer takes two years to reach a selling weight. Kids generally spend about $1,000 feeding them in that time span, Lindsey said.

With the livestock show canceled, youth are scrambling to sell their projects because the animals won’t be salable next year.

Livestock show organizers and fair superintendents have rallied to help youth sell their product to interested locals by posting them on the group’s Facebook page.

Boxes full of food donations are stacked Thursday during the drive-thru Snohomish County Food Drive in Monroe. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Boxes full of food donations are stacked Thursday during the drive-thru Snohomish County Food Drive in Monroe. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

For the county, the Evergreen State Fair makes up the majority of the millions of dollars brought in at the fairgrounds each year. The speedway and equestrian events make up the rest, which have also been shut down due to COVID. All profit goes toward fairground renovations, like bathroom and building upgrades.

Losing that income has led to most of the fair’s staff being furloughed or transferred to other county positions, not returning until early 2021. That puts them three months behind planning next year’s fair, fair manager Jeremy Husby said.

“The biggest misconception is that fair staff are there for 12 days,” he said.

The furloughed staff doesn’t include the 400 part-time employees hired each year for the fair, County Councilman Low said.

“It’s just sad to see the huge economic impact because of this,” he said.

The financial burden is felt beyond the limits of the 193-acre fairgrounds, too.

During the fair’s 12-day run, Monroe’s hotels, motels and private home rentals are flooded with outside vendors and fair-goers.

With no fair, those rooms are left vacant, dealing a harsh blow to both the businesses and the city.

Monroe’s Finance Director Becky Hasart estimates a $15,000 – $17,000 loss in lodging tax dollars from June to August. That’s 20% of the year’s projected revenue.

“The reality is, when the fair is in town, our hotels are booked,” Hasart said.

Inside the fairgrounds, many of the perennial vendors and local businesses are also feeling the financial squeeze from the cancellation.

“Our local retailers, whether it’s the car dealer or the ATV dealer, or motorhomes, trailers, all of those are on display at the fair and they receive significant sales from that,” County Councilman Low said.

Dawnelle Dutcher has brought Pompeii Woodfire Pizza to the fair for the last eight years. About half her business’ revenue comes from serving at events, and the fair makes up about 20% of that, Dutcher said.

“It’s hands down the biggest thing we do,” she said. “We’re really feeling it because we get a lot of money from it.”

For now, she’s focusing on her permanent food truck in Snohomish and hunkering down until next year.

Cars line up Thursday at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds to make donations to the Snohomish County Food Drive in Monroe. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Cars line up Thursday at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds to make donations to the Snohomish County Food Drive in Monroe. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Conifer Foods sells about 400,000 of their quintessential berry scones at the Evergreen State fair alone. They sell another 1.5 million at the Washington State Fair. The events make up 75% of the business’ revenue, spokesperson Harry Forsberg said.

The cancellation impacts the hundreds of seasonal workers who bake and serve scones at the fair, too, he added.

You can still get your fair scone fix, though.

Conifer Foods designed an at-home fair scone kit that includes the scone mix, fisher jam and sleeves that the scones come in at fairs. The company also collaborated with Whidbey Island Ice Cream to make an ice cream with the scones that will hit shelves at Metropolitan Markets, QFC and Safeway this weekend.

You can find the kits at Metropolitan Markets, QFC, Bartells and Made in Washington Stores.

Back in Monroe, Mayor Thomas was again reminded of the cancellation last weekend, when the city had planned to host the Fair Days Parade and Market. The annual procession down Main Street is the kickoff event for fair festivities, with guests like the Seafair Pirates, local equestrian teams and the Monroe High School band and cheerleaders.

Pictures from the 2019 parade populated his Facebook feed, recalling all the fun that occurred “one year ago, today.”

“It goes like that for everything this year,” he said. “Everybody’s lives are impacted.”

Lindsey from Marysville joked it’s fitting the fair is cancelled in 2020, “the year that wasn’t.”

For her, the fair is a celebration of the year’s end.

“We won’t have that this year,” she said. “So we’ll tunnel on through and celebrate next year.”

Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; jgsanders@heraldnet.com.

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; jthompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

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