Ohio State Fair Stirs Concern Over “Cow Town” Image

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Ohio State Fair 11th Avenue entrance.
Ohio State Fair 11th Avenue entrance.

The Ohio State Fair opens Wednesday in Columbus. One of the most recognizable and longest-running major events in Columbus, the fair attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

But some question whether the fair receives a fair share of promotional effort from those in charge of marketing the city. WOSU’s Christina Morgan reports the latest chapter in the image wars.

For those new to the image wars, the basic conflict is between Columbus the world class city and Columbus the cow town. Beginning with the bovine, it is possible to find cows year round in the 15th largest city in the U-S. And more are mooing their way into the city to be part of the annual state fair.

But the bovine – and the fair – represent something in the city’s rear view mirror. Ohio’s capital city is focused on the future – developing mass transit, building more mixed use housing downtown to attract more 20-somethings to stay after college graduation, bringing businesses and jobs into the city limits.

The fair represents the city’s history, the past – this metropolitan area’s agricultural roots.

Former Cleveland area resident Bruce Marshall is curator of the Museum of the Open Road. He has traveled to Columbus many times and written about the city as well. Marshall says there is one expression he often hears about the city:

Columbus is a city of 700,000 people who came for the state fair and just didn’t leave, says Marshall.

Marketing and Public Relations Director for the Ohio Expositions Center and state fair Christina Leeds says the expo center last year hosted five of the top 15 events in Columbus.

We host the Quarter Horse Congress, the Equine Affair, the Good Guys Rod and Custom Show, the Ohio Beef Expo and the Ohio Deer and Turkey Expo .and, and, and .the state fair, says Leeds.

Last year, Leeds says, the state fair brought in 806,000 people, and the economic impact, based on a study from seven years ago, is something in excess of $98 million. But the list of the top five events excludes the fair.

The Quarter Horse Congress brings in 650,000 people. It is generally described as the largest event in Columbus. Yet, in numbers of people and economic impact, it is second to the state fair which gets a lower billing. The fair is, apparently, the fair, and everything else is an event.

I don’t think the state fair falls outside the category of any other promotions we would do for events in town, says Scott Peacock, media relations manager for Experience Columbus, formerly known as the convention and visitors bureau.

Every several seconds, the large, electronic Experience Columbus sign alternates between the letters in the city’s name and a picture of the area. The Ohio State Fair pops up on the L as a Ferris wheel running at dusk with the city lights in the background.

The state fair failed to make the cover of the visitors guide, bumped out by the Columbus College of Art and Design, Ft. Rapids Water Park, German Village and the Columbus Crew. But it does have a large picture on page 18 and another on page 24.

The Ohio State Fair has been in Columbus since 1886. Bruce Marshall of the Museum of the Open Road speculates, that might be long enough to be taken for granted.

I think sometimes you miss what’s closest to home, says Marshall. Sometimes, really dramatic events and features are so familiar to you, you just don’t see them anymore.

Marshall says Columbus has a Midwest hesitation to draw attention to itself, a problem experienced by neither Cleveland nor Cincinnati. Yet he sees Columbus as the new American City – decentralized, with a highly educated workforce, what cities are going to look like in the future.

For now, though, the city has what Marshall calls an inferiority complex. People tend to apologize for their city. They say, Well, we’re not New York. We’re not Chicago.’ Of course not. You’re Columbus, says Marshall.

And Columbus – not the Big Apple or the Windy City – has the Ohio State Fair.

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