The El Paso County Fair draws thousands to Calhan daily during its eight-day run; however, the event’s economic impact to the town of less than 800 people is minimal.
“There just isn’t much out there, which can make it difficult for a whole lot of economic impact to be had because of the fair,” said District 2 County Commissioner Mark Waller. “It would be awesome if more businesses could see the potential out there with the fairgrounds and its new additions and consider opening out there.”
It was in 1905 that the first fair was held in Calhan, with visitors arriving by covered wagon, rather than the Subarus driven today.
“It’s a small town and, whenever you get that type of foot traffic increase, I have to think it’s good,” said Greg Dingrando, digital media specialist for El Paso County. “They have a gas station there and some restaurants, and the hope is that some of the fair attendance spills over into those businesses every year.”
Calhan Town Clerk Cindy Tompkins listed several businesses typically impacted by the fair, including Loaf ‘N Jug, Rooster’s Grille & Pizzaria, Calhan Inn, Napa Auto Parts and Woolsey’s Food Center.
“And then, we have two new dollar stores built last year, and I am thinking it will help them as well,” she said. “Hypothetically, if they moved the fair, it would hurt us. It does bring people out here and into our businesses.”
Tammy Herrera, an employee at Woolsey’s Food Center, said they see “a lot more people” during the fair.
“Oh geez, I can’t really tell you numbers,” she said. “I just know that it increases.”
Fair attendance varies from year to year mainly due to weather.
“If it’s a rainy year, then the attendance is down, and if it’s good weather, attendance is normally up, so it does fluctuate quite a bit,” Dingrando said, adding last year’s fair turnout was 26,812, which was up roughly 1,000 from 2016 but down from 2015’s attendance, which was about 31,700.
Waller says gate numbers also can mirror the health of the economy.
“When [the economy is] good, more people are likely to head out there and spend their money at the fair,” he said. “It’s pretty simple logic.”
The county is hoping several additions to the fairgrounds will not only boost numbers during the fair, but also overall usage of the facilities.
“The new pavilion is one of the biggest things we did out there,” Dingrando said. “For years, the county has rented a tent that we put up for a number of the concerts and activities we have during the fair, and that tent has cost a little over $5,000 every year. By having this new permanent pavilion, we will no longer have to rent that tent and it will also be something we can use year-round.”
He said families in El Paso County could use the fairgrounds for weddings, quinceañeras, dances and additional concerts throughout the year.
“Basically, anyone who wants to rent a park pavilion could rent this just as easily,” Dingrando said. “Even though the fair is only a week, we use the fairgrounds year-round and this is something that will benefit the fairgrounds for years to come.”
Tompkins believes more events at the fairgrounds also will create additional foot traffic for Calhan’s businesses.
“If there were more stuff going on, it would definitely help us,” she said. “We are growing a little, so I would hope to see the fair expand as well.”
While building the pavilion, the county also addressed drainage issues that have wreaked havoc in the past for both fair vendors and visitors.
“Those flood issues won’t be happening out there anymore if it does happen to rain,” Dingrando said. “We also added some new playground equipment and a misting area that we think is going to be a great addition because it’s summertime and kids want to play on the equipment, which is totally free, and then go cool down in the mister area.”
Other improvements include the fair’s entryway, as well as “substantial” IT upgrades.
“A big thing was improving the WiFi out there because that’s going to be really great for our vendors,” Dingrando said. “In this day and age, everyone operates with a credit card, so the easier it is for them to connect to WiFi and have their credit card machines working, the better. It will also help us as a staff because we will be selling tickets at the ticket booth and rely on WiFi as well.”
This year, the county “significantly” shifted how it promoted the annual event.
“Last year, we had an ad agency do a lot of the work and we decided to change it up and do it a little more in-house,” Dingrando said. “We’ve been doing TV and radio ads, and we’ve been using more Facebook ads because of how society has changed. We think there are a lot more people on Facebook than listening to the radio or watching the news.”
The county saved money by not using the agency, but those funds were then used for additional advertisement.
“It’s just a lot of different and new ways of getting people’s attention to let them know that the fair is happening,” Dingrando said. “The budget remained the same, we were just able to do more with it.”
Waller said county fairs, in recent years, have lost their identity, emphasizing the significance of the event.
“It’s important for people in Colorado Springs to come out and see the rural part of the county and how those people live,” he said. “This is certainly a jewel our county has to offer and we really recommend people come out and give it a try.”
Waller, who is from a small Midwest town, said there is room for more businesses in Calhan, but they would have to be “the right fit,” including locally owned places like a coffee shop or café.
“But I hear more from residents out there [who] don’t want more development than I hear from those who do want it,” he said. “People move or live out there for a reason, and they don’t want to have a bunch of new businesses popping up necessarily.”
This year’s fair will take place from July 14-21. Visit elpasocountyfair.com for more information.