Iowa State Fair vendors worry about how they’ll survive in 2020

Fairgoers ride the Skyglider at the Iowa State Fair in August 2014. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The cancellation of the Iowa State Fair is an emotional loss for many Iowans, but for businesses that rely on the summer traffic, the economic toll is devastating.

During a Zoom roundtable discussion, U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, spoke with vendors who said they rely on the fair’s high foot traffic for most — if not all — of their revenue.

“It’s emotional. It’s a part of my life,” said Connie Boesen, a Des Moines City Council member who also owns Applishus, a food and drink stand at the Iowa State Fair. “How do you keep going forward?”

The Iowa State Fair Board announced June 10 the cancellation of the 2020 Iowa State Fair, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While fair staff came up with a plan for social distancing, it was ultimately scrapped due to the constraints and financial losses.

While the fair’s vendors were promised a spot at the 2021 fair, for some of them, the losses may be too great and force them to close before then.

Scott Carlson, a local Des Moines restauranteur and owner of the Iowa Craft Beer Tent, said the cancellation of the fair and RAGBRAI resulted in the tent losing its two biggest revenue generators of the year. Out of the other 30 events he had scheduled, only three of them have not canceled yet.

Carlson said he exhausted one of his paycheck protection program loans on Monday. He wants Congress to quickly pass a measure that will allow small business owners to apply for PPP again, particularly as the early users near the end of their funds.

“If we don’t get another round, we’re dead in the water,” Carlson said.

For small businesses that were able to get a PPP loan, federal funding has helped them stay afloat, despite some of the restrictions requiring the majority of the money go toward payroll. 

While the first round of loans quickly evaporated, the second rollout has gone slower. As of last week, $130 billion still remains, according to the New York Times.

Carlson said he worries about PPP eligibility for fair vendors, particularly those who rely solely on the fair’s August traffic. PPP loan applications look at a business’s revenues from the beginning of the year.

“You may be missing a section of people that really have that finite time,” Carlson said.

Jeff Greteman, owner of Windstar Lines, a charter bus company, said he’s lost 97% of his business, as only five of his 152 buses are in use right now. While airline companies have received billions in bailout money, Greteman said buses received zero.

During the Iowa State Fair, he averages between $20,000 to $40,000 in revenue, Greteman said.

“COVID’s definitely wreaking havoc on our business,” Greteman said. “We’re just looking for some sort of support as well.”

Axne said she supports loosening restrictions on the PPP loans and helping the businesses that are running out of their initial loan money. Both the House and Senate are working to determine how the remaining funds in the PPP program should be allocated, but the question is how quickly something will pass.

It may be unlikely the Senate will pass anything relating to PPP until after its July 4 recess.

“We need to force the Senate’s hands. We can’t keep waiting that long,” Axne said. “We’ve got the money in there. It’s doing no good just sitting in there.”

Axne said she’ll miss seeing all of the vendors and flipping pork chops at the Iowa Pork Tent this year, particularly since it’s a big “political year,” she said.

“It would have been a heck of a lot of fun,” Axne said.

Linh Ta
Reporter Linh Ta comes to Iowa Capital Dispatch from the Des Moines Register, where she covered trending news, public safety and the suburbs. Most recently, she has covered retail business and followed both national and local trends to provide insight about the issues that matter the most to Iowans. Beyond traditional journalism, Ta has worked as a speech coach with the Des Moines Storytellers Project with the goal of sharing the diverse perspectives of Iowans from all walks of life. She is the 2019 winner of the Young Iowa Journalist Award and the winner of an Iowa Broadcast News Award. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @linhmaita.