The Erie County Fairgrounds
A New York summer tradition & more
Business View Magazine interviews Jessica Underberg, CEO of the Erie County Fairgrounds, for our focus on Resilience of Events Facilities
As families gather to celebrate summer and enjoy the warm weather, thoughts turn to activities and events that New York residents look forward to every year and have become part of the fabric of the summertime-fun lineup. One such event that is sure to never disappoint is the long-established, and well-loved Erie County Fair.
Held over different sites throughout Buffalo and Western New York, the Erie County Fair enjoys a long and reputable history spanning almost 200 years. First held in Buffalo and later moved to Hamburg, the popular annual fair attracts thousands of visitors from across New York State and beyond, and provides entertainment, knowledge-based programming, and endless fun for families of all ages.
The Erie County Fairgrounds complex is a 280-acre facility that includes an event center, a showplex, and a popular agricultural discovery center that comprises a building housing livestock and a building dedicated to equine competitive shows. Beyond what the Erie County Fair holds for visitors in August, a myriad of other events, educational activities, and experiences are offered throughout the year at the fairgrounds. “Our Fairgrounds is also home of the Buffalo Raceway, which runs Harness Racing through July,” says Jessica Underberg, CEO of the Erie County Fairgrounds.
“This will be our 80th year of racing here,” Jon Cramer, Director of Operations for the Buffalo Raceway, highlights. “As for the racing operation, we have standardbred harness racing where the jockeys are in the sulkies in the car. It’s not riding the horses, but it’s a half-mile horse track.”
Horse riding on the fairgrounds started in 1942 with parimutuel wagering in New York state. Averaging roughly 60 racing days from January through July, simulcast wagering is offered as well, allowing patrons to bet on other horse racing events such as the Kentucky Derby and other large Triple Crown events. Stables across the grounds house up to 200 horses throughout the racing season.
The Fairgrounds doesn’t have a so-called “off-season.” According to Underberg, “We host our own Festival of Lights in the winters which became a drive-through during COVID. Coming back in 2022, we are able to bring back a walk-through event in the winter where kids can sit on Santa’s lap and see reindeer and engage in holiday themed family fun activities. The Festival of Lights runs the day after Thanksgiving through the 23rd of December.”
The 12-day Erie County Fair, similar to the year-long educational offerings, also attracts an impressive number of visitors. Averaging around a million visitors each year and sometimes exceeding that, the popularity of the fair can’t be denied.
Spanning nearly two centuries of history the Erie County Fairgrounds boasts several heritage buildings, as well as newer buildings that have been added in recent years. “We have quite a few heritage buildings and recently we have put up some new buildings,” Underberg says. “The oldest building on our property is the Octagon building. The backstretch area for racing has also had a lot of work done back there and in the livestock agriculture area almost all of the horse barns are brand new in the last 10 to 15 years.”
Visitors can also enjoy a gaming center, established on the facility in 2004, which is in operation 365 days a year. In addition, with the Erie County Fair’s 175 anniversary in 2014, the Agricultural Discovery Center opened its doors – representing a $9 million investment.
Of all the activities for the public that the Erie County Fairgrounds can offer, the field trips for schools across Western New York throughout the calendar school year top the list for the staff. To date, over 50,000 children have been educated on important aspects relating to agriculture, food supplies, and animals through the carefully planned itinerary offered year-round. “This is a pretty impressive number,” Underberg states.
“We host field trips to elementary schools throughout Western New York. Each fieldtrip is three hours and we hold fieldtrips for two weeks each month, Monday through Friday. Our groups can range from 25 kids to 150 kids depending on the size of the school, or the grade,” Maria Lucero, Director of Agriculture Center Education, illustrates. “It’s a group effort. Volunteers come in and help us to facilitate and host those field trips along with two additional educators or community members that come in and teach about agriculture.”
Each month follows a theme: Sweet Side of Agriculture, Pizza from the Farm, New York State of Harvest, and so on. Students will visit three stations to experience different agricultural elements and the role that food supply and animals play in the agriculture process. For teachers, the curriculum often mirrors that being presented in the classrooms across the state.
When COVID hit, the need for adaptation took center stage for the dedicated staff on the Erie County Fairgrounds. Accustomed to face-to-face interactions and in-person attendance, the move to a remote-based program offering was needed to continue with the staff agenda during the height of the pandemic. While visitors were restricted from entering the fairgrounds, the committed staff brought the agricultural experience to the home and classrooms through the use of virtual technology including Zoom. The agriculture staff shared video footage and interactive demonstrations through internet meeting platforms and broadened their reach to extend further to those who would not be able to easily commute to the fairgrounds during normal times.
“During COVID we did take our field trips virtually. Taking the model of two weeks of every month, we opened up three-time slots a day and this allowed me to interact with more schools and students every month. We were able to spend 30 minutes in each classroom do our farm tour, share that video and interact with the students,” Lucero explains.
As New York state adhered to very strict COVID rules, the staff were forced to cancel the 2020 fair and did not resume all scheduled events until September 2021. Decisions were made to help keep some staff during the peak of the pandemic, since the employee number runs in the hundreds, factoring in the gaming area, horse racing, and additional positions throughout the fairgrounds.
With the height of the pandemic in the rearview mirror, the fairgrounds are now up and running at near capacity, and lessons learned during COVID have helped to carve the pathway forward for the Erie County Fairgrounds team. One area that has benefited from continued COVID lockdowns has been in the realm of ticket sales. With in-person ticketing restricted, the Erie County Fair staff turned to online ticket sales.
“We were one of the only county fairs that went to cashless sales and moved ticket purchases online,” Lucero reflects. “This is a huge advantage for us in the way we can report and capture data that we never had before. We now have the contact information, phone numbers, and email address. It’s a click of a button.”
The future of the Erie County Fair and all the programs scheduled throughout the calendar year looks bright for the hard-working staff. By relying on existing partnerships including the long their long-established Strates Shows partnership, the public can expect great events to take place. “We are celebrating our 100th anniversary with them (Strates Shows) in 2024 which is probably the longest fair and carnival partnership to date and likely will be the longest fair and carnival partnership ever. It is unheard of,” Underberg says.
The staff is also looking ahead with excitement to all that is to come. “We anticipate growing that virtual agricultural piece and even the in-person agricultural piece. I am looking forward to just really having a full and normal year where we can host field trips the entire year, bring back our Educator Development Day and explore how we can have the biggest reach and impact,” Lucero concludes.
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AT A GLANCE
The Erie County Fairgrounds
What: Home of the famous Erie County Fair & year-round agricultural events
Where: Hamburg, New York
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