Historic Orange County Fairgrounds Keeps Going in Face of Uncertain Future

Historic Orange County Fairgrounds Keeps Going in Face of Uncertain Future
Orange County Fair Speedway at Orange County Fairgrounds in Middletown, N.Y., on May 7, 2024. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)
Cara Ding
5/20/2024
Updated:
5/22/2024
0:00

Home to one of the oldest fairs in New York and one of the oldest continuously operating dirt tracks in the country, Orange County Fairgrounds in Middletown has managed to keep core traditions alive while adapting to the changing world over the past century.

However, the rising operational costs, the ever-diminishing fan base, and the risks of weather uncertainties have rendered the family business unsustainable for its third-generation majority owner and operator, Mike Gurda IV.

“We were fortunate enough—a lot of racetracks didn’t survive COVID,” Mr. Gurda told The Epoch Times in his office. “My goal is to keep it going as long as I can. ... when the time does come for the property to go, I’d like for it to be proper for the community.”

After some number crunching last fall, he decided to drastically scale down the signature Saturday night stock car races that had been running on the fairgrounds for decades.

This year, only three such races were scheduled, compared with about 18 in the past, plus the Eastern States Weekend, known among fans as “the last race of the year.”

“This is the first time we have changed that—we have had it for my whole lifetime. ... but it was also an easy decision when you see that you are losing money,” Mr. Gurda said.

By removing from the calendar most stock car races, whose fans skew older and whose attendance is on the decline, he can attract other potentially more profitable weekend events or shows.

Over the past years, Mr. Gurda has taken many such steps to adapt the 100-acre fairgrounds in the town of Wallkill to the changing times and realign programs with the shifting demands of society.

“Everything that goes on here is revenue-driven,” he said. “We are just trying to always change with the time in terms of what is popular and how to generate revenue.”

‘Hanging On by a Thread’

However, even with the adaptations, the business has been struggling for years to cover its operational expenses, which seem to rise faster than the diminishing income can handle.

“A lot of people don’t realize it takes approximately 70 people to operate a Saturday night stock car race; the liability insurance is through the roof,” Mr. Gurda said. “And just the operational costs, whether it is in diesel, equipment, preparing the track, operating the generator.

“We are just basically hanging on by a thread to try to cover our expenses.”

Motocross race tracks at Orange County Fairgrounds in Middletown, N.Y., on May 7, 2024. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)
Motocross race tracks at Orange County Fairgrounds in Middletown, N.Y., on May 7, 2024. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

On top of overhead costs, he must deal with the untamable weather.

When rain affects an outdoor event and causes less-than-expected revenue, Mr. Gurda hopes to recoup the losses from events blessed with good weather.

“It is really the combination of all of the events that we have that basically keeps [the business] alive,” he said. “The place would never stand alone as a speedway by itself, or a fair by itself, or a motocross track, or an arena building, or [by] ground rentals.”

However, if rain affects the largest revenue generator of the year, the Orange County Fair, Mr. Gurda will have to wait for another year to break even—that is, if the weather holds up.

“I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and I am pretty much over the stress of that,” Mr. Gurda, who grew up on the fairgrounds and started working in the business right out of high school, said.

The annual county fair has been running for more than a century on the historic property, a site once surrounded by farmlands that have been transformed into retail and medical centers upon the arrival of two intersecting highways over the past decades.

“The value of the property and the risk of operating the property in the manner that we do—the risk definitely outweighs the reward,” he said.

Mr. Gurda and other owners of the fairgrounds had entered into a contract with a developer to turn the historic property into a warehouse, a move later rendered moot by a warehouse moratorium enacted by the town in November 2022 that is still in effect today.

“I genuinely thought a warehouse was a benefit to the community and not a burden on the community, but if that is not what they want, there is no sense in pursuing it further,” he said.

“I have a very good relationship with the county and town, and we have been talking about what fits here the best and what is best for the community—that is the goal.”

A feasibility study commissioned by Orange County last year identified the fairgrounds as one of four prime locations for developing the county’s first conference center.