Sacramento bee

Without state help, Sacramento’s Cal Expo will become another coronavirus casualty Read more here:

August 19, 2020

By Dr. Richard Pan

Over the years, Cal Expo has had its series of struggles.

Founded in 1854 to promote California’s reputation for farming and industry, the 166-year-old State Fair has had its bouts with fluctuating attendance, ongoing budget constraints and the challenges of competing against state-of-the-art facilities nearby.

Despite these challenges, and without any funding allocation in the state budget, the California Exposition and State Fair has been a mainstay on the list of culturally significant attractions and events available for California residents to enjoy. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cal Expo’s leadership undertook a major initiative to broaden the appeal of the fair to include entertainment options for more of California’s diverse audiences.

Those efforts included the likes of the first of its kind statewide youth mariachi competition, e-sports tournaments, drone light shows, wine and beer competitions, multi-cultural festivals including the very first “Out At the State Fair” to highlight the LGBT community and the introduction of an all-new food festival pass for fairgoers to taste cuisines from nearly every region and ethnic group in the state. Those efforts bore fruit, as 601,761 Californians visited Cal Expo during the 2019 State Fair, a 5% increase from the prior year — the largest single event in northern California.

Then the coronavirus hit earlier this year and the world changed. Cal Expo, which in a normal year hosts over 200 events and upwards of 3 million annual visitors, was forced to cancel nearly all of its events, including the 2020 State Fair, impacting over 800 seasonal workers and costing Cal Expo an estimated $24 million in revenue. While Cal Expo and its board of directors wisely built a $6.8 million reserve, those funds have since been exhausted on their COVID-19 response efforts. With operating costs of $1.33 million per month, the reality is that Cal Expo can no longer meet its financial obligations, even after making devastating cuts and issuing layoff notices.

Despite these challenges, Cal Expo, with its rich history, has been a regional and statewide partner in emergency preparedness and response during these extraordinary times of crisis. Cal Expo generously partnered with the state of California and local and regional partners to be a COVID-19 testing site, a temporary site for homeless trailers and a staging area for the state’s historic battle with catastrophic wildfires. It also provides a safe location for blood and food drives to support the Sacramento region.

All this has been accomplished over the years with very little assistance from the state. As an independent state agency, Cal Expo does not qualify for traditional Paycheck Protection Program loans or much of the federal assistance and resources that has been given provide to small businesses and corporations to help weather these harsh economic times.

Without assistance, Cal Expo may be gone forever and, along with it, the traditions and customs and yearly showcasing of innovation that hundreds of thousands of Californians have grown to love. Along with that, hundreds of jobs that pay living wages will be lost, and Cal Expo’s regional economic impact will be missed in a region that is already experiencing double-digit unemployment.

Timing is of the essence as Cal Expo is now on the brink of closure.

We can ill-afford to lose this critical asset as we deal with a pandemic and other potential disasters such as wildfires. Cal Expo is not only vital to Sacramento and our region, but to the entire state. Cal Expo requires urgent action and funding so it can continue operations and support critical disaster relief activities during COVID-19.