Brandon’s Keystone Centre should have been shoulder-to-shoulder crowds June 3-7 with the pop-up city of towering rides, food trucks and entertainers that is the Manitoba Summer Fair. This year, however, the lots were bare.
The Manitoba Summer Fair is now the second of three major events put on by the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba to fall prey to the COVID-19 pandemic. In mid-March, the exhibition cancelled the Manitoba Royal Winter Fair, scheduled for the end of that month. By early April, the organization extended that cancellation to the summer fair.
“It’s been a tough go for us,” exhibition general manager Ron Kristjansson said. “We had to make a decision on the winter fair right at the start of the COVID(-19) crisis and we never imagined at the time that it would carry on long enough to get us into the first week of June.”
Why it matters: COVID-19 has now taken two-thirds of the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba’s major events, and that has put serious financial strain on the organization.
Even with the province entering its second phase of reopening, social distancing requirements currently limit gatherings to 25 people, and 50 people if outside.
Those numbers would not even cover those running the fair, Kristjansson noted.
The loss of two of the three major annual fairs has been a financial hammer blow for the organization. In March, the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba laid off much of its staff, employees Kristjansson says still remain out of their jobs.
The cancellation has also hurt one of the organization’s major fundraising initiatives. Earlier this year, the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba announced a $15,000 draw, with the expectation that crowds during both the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair and Manitoba Summer Fair would bolster ticket sales. With cancellations, however, the organization was instead forced to rely on outreach through social and traditional media.
It has since put its focus on smaller events, such as a curbside supper that the organization hopes to repeat over the Father’s Day weekend, Kristjansson said.
There is still hope that Ag Ex, arguably the most overtly agricultural of the three fairs, might go ahead with a modified schedule.
Budget constraints have forced the exhibition to move away from the horse shows and Manitoba Finals Rodeo, although Kristjansson says they still hope cattle shows will go ahead.
“When you have events cancelled all the way through the year, it’s hard to have a rodeo finals,” he said, “and just the cost to convert that Keystone Centre, to convert all of those rinks to barns and rodeo arenas in these uncertain times is just something that we couldn’t do.”
The ongoing pandemic has already wreaked havoc with the Manitoba rodeo circuit.
Mark Fraser, president of the Manitoba Rodeo Cowboys Association, estimated they would normally have seen 17 rodeos by June 1.
“Some of these contestants, they rely on that,” he said. “They’re farmers and they rely on some rodeo income. We’re not in the professional ranks in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but it sure affects the contestants quite a bit. Everyone’s tired of being tied up at home.”
The MRCA typically ends its competitive season with the Manitoba Finals Rodeo at Ag Ex.
As a non-profit, the organization itself is not financially impacted by the cancellation, Fraser noted, although the loss may be felt in rodeos to come.
“It’s a blow to the sport,” he said. “There’s a chance of losing repetitive spectators. There’s a big change of repetitive sponsorship and stuff.”
Likewise, he noted, a gap year might impact participation in some rodeo committees.
Ag Ex cattle shows, however, come with less setup cost, Kristjansson said, since their area of the Keystone Centre is already designed as barn space.
“Our committee is working hard talking to exhibitors, talking to sponsors, seeing what may shape up for an October event,” he said. “But, there again, we need to make sure that the safety of the public is obviously our top priority and, if we’re not in a spot where we can have a few people gather together to make an event, then we have to step back from that as well.”