There’s been no government aid, revenues have fallen to near zero, and reserves have been used up
Two world wars couldn’t stop them. The Spanish flu couldn’t shut them down.
But if government support doesn’t come soon, COVID-19 might do what those global crises couldn’t — close the doors forever on century-old agriculture societies across the country.
“I’ll be honest, we have less than six months,” said Jenelle Saskiw, general manager of the Lloydminster Exhibition Association. “It’s absolutely crippling our organization. We’re going to be forced to close our doors, plain and simple.”
Like other ag societies across Canada, her association — which has been operating for 113 years — has been struggling to keep the lights on since the pandemic hit in March.
“Our organization has been completely shut down,” said Saskiw. “Typically this is when we host many of our big events — definitely our biggest money-making events — and we’ve had to cancel them due to COVID. We’ve completely lost all of our revenue.”
Last year, the Lloydminster ag society hosted more than 900 events, creating an economic spinoff of $47 million for the region, said Saskiw. It employed 40 full-time staff and about 140 part-time staff (in addition to more than 400 volunteers) throughout the year.
Now, it’s down to 10 staff, zero events, and next to no revenue.
“Our fixed costs in Lloydminster in the month of June ran us at $125,000 just to keep our doors open. Since COVID hit, we’ve brought in less than $20,000 worth of revenue,” said Saskiw. “When you see those kinds of numbers, you realize it doesn’t take long to chip away at any kind of reserve that you might have.”
In June, the Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions (CAFE) requested $49 million in federal government aid to support fairs, exhibitions, and ag societies across Canada. That ask was increased to $74 million at the beginning of August as the full scope of the financial crisis facing these organizations became apparent.
“As soon as COVID started, we knew this was going to be a difficult time for us,” said Christina Franc, executive director of CAFE. “We’re founded on mass gatherings and domestic tourism, and usually these events generate the majority of the revenue that carries us through to the next year.
“That’s disappeared. We’re left with nothing.”
Falling through the cracks
Without government support, CAFE estimates that one in 10 ag societies will be forced to close their doors forever.
“It’s really about the survivability of these organizations so they can continue into next year,” said Franc.
That’s the case at the Lloydminster Exhibition.
“There’s light at the end of the tunnel — all the events that were cancelled for 2020 have been rebooked for 2021, so we know that we will be able to generate revenue again,” said Saskiw. “It’s about providing us that bridge funding that we so desperately need in order to keep our heads above the water.
“We need those dollars in order to operate. They would keep our doors open. It’s our last lifeline.”
But so far, government aid programs for these types of organizations haven’t materialized.
“As programs are announced, we’re either ineligible or can’t take advantage of them for one reason or another,” said Franc.
“We continue to have conversations, but we haven’t seen any progress yet unfortunately. There seems to be a really significant gap to support these kinds of organizations.”
Nor have public health regulations been adjusted to reflect their unique nature.
Right now in Alberta, other hospitality businesses such as restaurants and casinos are able to accommodate guests with no cap on the number of people, as long as they follow public health measures around distancing (no more than six people at a table with tables at least two metres apart).
But for other indoor social gatherings, the cap is 100 people for seated events and just 50 for other types of events held indoors. Because the Lloydminster Exhibition Association is located on the Saskatchewan side of the town, their requirements are even more stringent — indoor gatherings can have a maximum of only 30 people.
“Everybody seems to have had a little bit of grace, but we’re still restricted to only being allowed to have 30 people in our doors,” said Saskiw, adding that their largest facility can accommodate 1,200 people.
“I would never choose to bring that many people in, but there’s no reason why I couldn’t bring in 200 people and have them socially distanced, with staff available to ensure that hand sanitizer is available and cleaning is taking place.
“We can provide that safe alternative for the public who are so desperately yearning to get together, yet we’ve been totally shut out in the guidelines. It feels like we’ve completely fallen through the cracks.”
And the effect on rural communities will be far reaching if these organizations are forced to shut down. Beyond the economic impact to the region (every dollar a fair takes in generates about $4.50 for the region), communities would suffer a major social and cultural loss.
“We’ve grown to be such integral parts of the community,” said Franc. “It’s where farmers gather for spaghetti suppers, or where they go to the fair, or where they go to the curling club. It really supports community vitality and quality of life, particularly in rural communities.”
In many cases, these community centres have also been designated as emergency response centres in case of disasters, like a tornado, flood, or large disease outbreak — like the global pandemic we find ourselves in.
“We provide pivotal services within our community, but if we close our doors, people will realize what a huge void we’ve left behind in our region,” said Saskiw.
“We have to keep our doors open. We have to.”