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Gozinsky: New York State Fair should resist privatization to preserve tradition, local ties

Benjamin Wilson | Staff Photographer

New York State Fair attendees zip through the air at last year's event.

A strong sun and hot weather won’t be the only things rolling into central New York come late August: the New York State Fair will also be coming to town. Located just off of routes I-690 and 695 in Syracuse, the fairgrounds will be blanketed by the smell of cotton candy and farm animals, and graced by the presence of musical superstar Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.

Attractions like these have kept crowds coming back by the thousands for decades, but future years may feature a new guest: private operators of the fair. After touring the fairgrounds to see the renovations taking place, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he will be looking for bids from private management companies to run the state fair in the future. Cuomo’s announcement comes after recent construction, worth a reported $50 million. In part motivated by the need to make the fairgrounds more attractive to private companies, the ongoing construction at the fairgrounds is expected to wrap up this week before the Syracuse Nationals classic car show on July 15.

While it’s true that the construction has displaced several restaurants located at the fairgrounds, organizers are going to be working with the restaurant owners to find their businesses a new location. If the restaurants had been pushed out during construction for a privately-run fair, then the company may not have spent its time or effort to help displaced local businesses. This scenario is a prime example of how the state fair is better left in the hands of an entity that cares undoubtedly about the local economy. Not only is it questionable whether a private company would succeed at running the country’s oldest state fair, but it is head-scratching that Cuomo suggested that a private firm could do a better job than the state government in putting New York’s people — and businesses — first.

Troy Waffner, that acting director of the state fair, explained that the fair employs 1,000 to 1,200 local workers during the 12 days of the fair along with a year-round “maintenance and events” staff of about 40 and a small administrative staff, all of which are local to central New York. Even further, fair organizers take care to hire vendors from the region and state.

“We have about 600 vendors each year, and about one-third of those are local. When I say local, I mean from the greater central New York area,” said Troy Waffner, the acting director of the state fair. “We get some vendors from New York City and Long Island and places like that.”

The fair director acknowledged that if the fair were to be run on a private model, the company in charge would not give preference to local employees or local vendors, but would instead go for the cheapest option, even if it meant going outside the region or state.

Yet Waffner also believes that handing the state fair over to a company could lend the event-planning to more innovation, better technology and more capital to build on the $50 million that the state has already invested. If anything, Waffner hopes that privatization could include some sort of contractual agreement for future fair operators to maintain traditions and promote all things New York.

Ideally, anyone who cares about the fair should share Waffner’s hopes. But that by no means guarantees that expensive, but culturally important agricultural attractions, including dairy cattle competitions, horse shows or even the Swifty Swine Racing Pigs Show would remain untouched. And part of the charm of the state fair is knowing that all events and attractions are authentic aspects of state history.

Peter Howe, an assistant professor of economics at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, said he believes profit-oriented decisions like privatizing the fair would run opposite of what the state fair is all about: celebrating the people of New York.

“I think the New York State Fair is a public good. And as a public good, it should not — it cannot — be a profit-making thing. It’s a cost, it’s a cost to the people of New York state and it’s a service to the people of New York state,” Howe said. “There are some things where profits are not the goal and should not be the goal.”

Where profits are involved, Howe expressed that privatization could spell danger for local employees of the fair and that if anything, the businesses located in central New York should be at forefront. On the other hand, Howe said he believes hiring a private company to run the fair, as Cuomo has proposed, could yield positive results when it comes to auditing. The company could hire a reputable accounting firm to audit the operations of the fair in a timely, accurate and more transparent manner than audits in the past. Still, the benefit of better auditing does not outweigh the importance of keeping the fair authentically New York.

In some cases, privatization has been seen to work for New York: the state senate and state assembly have recently taken steps to re-privatize the horse-racing industry. While this move may ultimately pay off because an entire industry will be back under the control of private businesses and their interests, the fair is a different case. The New York State Fair is an annual event that represents the culture of the entire state, not just a small group of fans or participants of one sport. That’s why it is best if the fair remains in the hands of the government that represents the people, not a company with private interests that is just out for profit.

When it was first held in 1841, the event featured animal exhibits, plowing contests, and samples of goods made on farms and in local homes. None of these agriculture-focused attractions are the most profitable or the most “exciting” for some, but they are important pieces of state history nonetheless. U.S. capitalism may be embodied by the constant push for bigger profits, more competition and widespread privatization, but certain cultural events, traditions and industries should remain the exception.

In a state known for the country’s most popular city to visit, beautiful beaches and part of the world’s ninth largest waterfall in Niagara Falls, agriculture is easily forgotten. The fair should push back on this forgetfulness and remind us of the industry’s economic importance as well as the the state’s roots before people flocked to New York City to see Broadway shows and ride boats under the falls.

Just as agriculture helps the fair and the state itself retain their identities, the public ownership of the fair speaks to how one of the state’s biggest cultural events should be, above all else, run for the people of New York and by the people of New York.

Sam Gozinsky is a sophomore finance and public relations dual major. He can be reached at slgozins@syr.edu and followed on Twitter @SamGozinsky.

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