(The Center Square) – While the revenue-generating events schedule within the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center was nixed this past year, the Harrisburg-based venue remains on a solid financial footing, a state official reported recently.
The vitality of the 24-acre complex, long viewed as a sign of Pennsylvania’s largest industry, has come into question on multiple occasions this spring as lawmakers have been meeting with head staffers within the state’s various agencies.
In an average year, the Farm Show Complex hosts more than 80 events, ranging from car to craft shows. Each January, the building also hosts its namesake event, bringing together farmers and people interested in agriculture, though this year’s extravaganza was virtual.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly traditionally has appropriated $5 million annually from a resource fund, largely to cover the costs of the January farm show. Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has not asked for any additional funding this year.
The scenario prompted state Sen. Elder Vogel Jr., R-New Sewickley, to question Russell Redding, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, about the financial stability of the event.
“Where are we at?” Vogel, said at a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting April 8. “Are we going to need any additional supplemental money to help keep the farm show going, due to lack of shows and business over there?”
In response, Redding said the facility has not been awash in a sea of red operating ink, thanks to an arrangement with another state agency that swiftly repurposed the sprawling facility for PPP equipment storage in response to COVID-19.
“I would give you a different answer today if we did not have the arrangement we have in place with the Department of General Services,” Redding said. “That has generated about $3.7 million for the complex.”
Redding added, “We are in a financial position of doing OK. We’re not coming back to you at this moment, looking for any additional money.”
During the recent round of budget deliberations, state Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, also asked Redding about the condition of Pennsylvania’s lease-leaseback arrangement for the facility throughout the year, at times when the facility is not hosting the January farm show.
Dush had asked Redding and other staffers within the Department of Agriculture who was on the hook — the state or the lessee — for any operational losses incurred from the scores of event cancellations since last March.
“In normal circumstances, I would assume the lessee is the one that takes responsibility for that, but I definitely would like to find out if that is the case,” Dush said of the current situation.
While no red flags have been raised within his office this past year, Redding said he was not prepared at the budget hearing to offer a complete explanation to the question.
“I probably need to follow up,” Redding said. “You’re asking a question I haven’t really thought about for quite some time. Let us double check on that arrangement, to confirm on the placement of the Farm Show Complex in that agreement.”
While this year’s farm show was virtual, Redding confirmed plans are in motion for all county fairs to proceed, albeit with the likelihood of modifications in response to pandemic precautions.
“My thought is we do want a fair season,” Redding said. ‘(Last year’s cancellations) had an impact to the local economy and, certainly, to the history and legacy of those fairs.”
Redding said current health guidance points to occupancy rates of 50 percent outdoors and 25 percent indoors, though the figures could be adjusted as the year progresses and more Pennsylvanians are vaccinated.