State funding for local fairs slashed

Joe Ward

County fairs and, to a lesser extent, 4-H fairs are having to adapt to survive amidst state revenue cuts. Some counties are working with half as much state money as they had in 2010.

Numbers show a substantial decrease in funding from the state since 2005 for GateHouse’s Western Illinois Division — an 11-county region in west-central Illinois — with counties experiencing the sharpest downturn in fiscal year 2010.

Funding for the upkeep of fairground facilities for Gatehouse’s Western Division (including an 11-county area from Livingston County west to Henderson and Mercer counties) fell from $275,477 in fiscal year 2010 to $130,294 in 2011. Charlyn Fargo, head of the Bureau of County Fairs and Horse Racing, said reimbursements to grounds upkeep — which includes land acquisition and maintenance labor fees — was cut in half for all county fairs.

Funding now comes from the state’s general revenue funds, which is comprised mostly of income and sales taxes. Tax revenue took a hit during the worst of the recession and, coupled with a massive budget deficit, forced state legislators to scale back funding across the board.

Jeff Squibb, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, said agriculture’s budget has been reduced by 40 percent since 2008. Squibb said further cuts are expected. A 2013 budget was passed late in the spring legislative session, although it could be amended by Gov. Pat Quinn. Squibb said specifics regarding that budget have not trickled down to the bureau level.

Evolving fairs

The money to operate the fairs — staff, entertainment, security — is generated locally through entrance and parking fees as well as commission from carnival games and rides.

Fairs have increased those fees in the wake of diminished funding, but higher prices alone cannot save the fairs, said Marvin Perzee, Illinois Association of Agricultural Affairs director-at-large.

“We’re careful not to price ourselves out of the market,” he said. “If you have a mom and a dad and two kids, with prices increased too much, they’ll just stay home.”

Fargo said fairs are having to evolve, or at least become more entrepreneurial in their operation. She said booking a popular music act or a tractor pull are needed to further entice participants. She mentioned that more work is now being done by volunteers.

Perzee said many of the cash prize events have morphed into “jackpot shows,” where all exhibitors put money into a pot and the winner takes all. He said this discourages young people from becoming involved unless they have connections or excellent livestock.

The number of children enrolled in 4-H extension programs is directly related to the levels of funding those counties’ extension offices receive. Enrollment is the biggest factor in determining funding changes, and 4-H fair funding “hasn’t changed too drastically over the course of five years,” said Lisa Fulkerson, 4-H county director for Henderson, Knox, McDonough and Warren counties.

But 4-H fair funding was also downgraded in 2010, after years of steady funding levels. From 2009-2010, state appropriations for 4-H fairs were $1 million. In 2011, the funding was reduced to $786,400. The Illinois Extension program received further cuts, said Extension Specialist Bill Million, but those cuts did not hurt the fairs.

Fulkerson said since counties don’t get reimbursed for prize money they award until months after the 4-H fair, county organizers are waiting to disburse those prizes until they have secured state money.

For further revenue streams, Perzee said fairgrounds are being rented out to expositions and flea markets. He said his fair in Iroquois County rents its grounds out to a camper rally.

Conditions on some of the fairgrounds have deteriorated, leaving some structures to rot. Perzee said state appropriations for grounds upkeep was never substantial enough, but that organizers have had to prioritize renovations, which has led to some unsafe conditions.

“They are not getting maintained like they should be,” Perzee said. “We’re always concerned with safety.

“Some fairs are concerned with how long they can exist,” he added.

Squibb’s message to fair organizers is to examine consolidation and explore further revenue streams, like sponsorships.

“Unless the state solves (its) fiscal crisis, they shouldn’t expect to see funding levels get much better,” he said.

Gambling expansion could help

There was a time, Squibb said, when the budget problem got so bad some legislators debated ending all funding for county and 4-H fairs.

But now there are legislators and citizens lobbying heavily for the governor to sign a gambling expansion measure that sources say would give fairs an extra $6 million in funding annually. Quinn has been a vocal opponent of expanded gambling facilities in Illinois.

Though most of the proposed new casinos would be built in Northern Illinois, many of the tax revenues from expanded Illinois gambling would fund agriculture initiatives and programs.

The Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs has lobbied heavily for passage of this bill. Perzee said the gambling bill would give fairs a “dedicated source of funding.”

“I know there are strong reservations about gambling, but it’s our thought process that if you want to gamble, you’re going to do it somewhere,” Perzee said. “We’d like that money to stay right here.”

District 74 Rep. Don Moffitt, R-Gilson, said an extra $6 million would aid 4-H extension and other agricultural programs, which he said is his district’s biggest industry.

Editor’s Note: This story looks at county and 4-H fair funding across 11 counties in the GateHouse Media’s Western Illinois Division. Newspapers owned by GateHouse in the Western Illinois Division will collaborate on a regional news story every three months. This is the first of those projects.

From west to east, the counties in the Western Illinois Division are: Mercer, Henderson, Warren, Henry, Knox, McDonough, Fulton, Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford and Livingston.