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Could the Ohio State Fair leave Columbus? Agricultural leaders call the idea a 'nonstarter'

Language in the budget the House passed last month would require a study of whether the Ohio Expo Center & State Fair should remain in Columbus.
Matthew Rand
Language in the budget the House passed last month would require a study of whether the Ohio Expo Center & State Fair should remain in Columbus.

In a little over two months, Columbus will once again host the Ohio State Fair, which has been held at its current site just off I-71 and just north of downtown since 1886.

“It's easy to get in and out of,” Ashland County cattle farmer Jason Workman said.

Workman also likes that the fairgrounds are centrally located in the state, with plenty of nearby restaurants and hotels.

“With the state patrol being right there, we tend to have a lot of security, which is nice. And there's a lot of pavement parking. We don't have to worry about getting stuck or anything, parking in fields,” he said.

But some members of the General Assembly think the state should at least look at finding a new home for the fair, possibly away from Columbus.

A budget amendment introduced last month in the House Finance Committee would require the Department of Development to conduct a study to determine if the fairgrounds should be moved to an alternative location.

Who added the measure to the omnibus amendments package is not clear. WOSU reached out to the House Majority Caucus for comment, but did not receive a statement.

Certainly, the property—valued at over $160 million, according to the Franklin County Auditor's website—would fetch a pretty penny if the state decided to sell it.

It's prime real estate that many developers would jump at, although none of the developers or business groups contacted for this story would comment.

However, the state already commissioned a study of the site as part of the Expo 2050 Master Plan. Governor DeWine created an Expo 2050 Task Force in 2019 to look at ways to modernize and enhance the fairgrounds for the future.

Julia Delos Santos helped lead the research for Columbus-based architecture firm Wellogy.

“The main question that we were wanting to answer that was presented to us is ‘How do we make the Ohio State Fair the best state fair in the nation?’” she said.

Her firm compared Ohio's fair to similar ones across the country, looking at a variety of factors including demographics, community and cultural impact, buildings located on the site, as well as vehicle and pedestrian traffic flow.

“The benchmarking effort really provided information on best practices to enhance operations at the Ohio Expo Center and was a guidance on how to best position the event facilities throughout the complex to enhance that guest experience,” Delos Santos said.

Wellogy completed their work in December of last year and determined that Columbus continues to be the best location for the Ohio Expo Center and State Fair.

“You always know where to go to see the butter cow and where the best corn dogs are, see the pig races, all of those amenities. And what we're really trying to do with the master plan is enhance those and provide new experiences as well,” Delos Santos said.

No final decision has been made, but Ty Higgins, Senior Director of Communications for the Ohio Farm Bureau, said the thought of the fair leaving Columbus just isn't realistic.

“I think it's a nonstarter,” he said.

Higgins said the fair's central location is about more than convenience. He said over 98% of Ohioans are not involved with agriculture or food production in any way.

“And so, the Ohio State Fair might be that one time of year that they get a chance to visit with a farmer one on one or see what we're doing to produce Ohio's safe, affordable and abundant food supply. That's an important conversation to have,” he said.

Higgins said agriculture has gotten a lot more high tech in recent years, and a talented crop of young Ohioans is rising to fill those crucial jobs. Keeping the fair in Columbus, he said, keeps those opportunities within reach.

“The Ohio State Fair is a breeding ground for those kids to really show off their talents. In 4-H and FFA, that is one of the biggest traditions of the Ohio State Fair,” Higgins said. “So, from a workforce development standpoint, giving those kids an opportunity to showcase their talents at the state level is so important and something that really gets overlooked.”

The budget amendment calling for another study on the best home for the state fair doesn't mention any possible alternatives, but one that's occasionally mentioned is the site of the Ohio Farm Science Review near London.

Leaders of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce declined to comment.

Click on the below link to see the full master plan for the Ohio State Fairgrounds.

Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.