Any time the state faces a financial crisis, the demands begin.
Stop the sky glide. Melt the butter cow. Put the prize-winning Jersey heifer out to pasture. The Illinois State Fair is too expensive, and we just don’t need it.
Naturally, fair organizers disagree. The Illinois State Fair has been a free-standing institution since 1853, they say — it’s mandated by state law and paid for with its own independent fund.
It was created to celebrate the agriculture industry and, 156 years later, continues to corral families from at least a 100-mile radius. According to a 2000 study of the Illinois State Fair’s impact on the Sangamon County economy, more than two-thirds of fair visitors were not Springfield residents and nearly 90 percent of this group had specifically traveled to the capital city to attend the fair.
Despite criticism that the annual festival is archaic and unpopular, the Illinois Department of Agriculture counted 737,052 people at the 2008 fair. That’s a 10 percent increase from the 671,333 people who attended the fair just five years ago.
The fair also calls to hundreds of livestock competitors, who enter the same contests as their grandparents’ grandparents, and vendors like Vose corndogs, Culler’s French fries and Sutter’s state fair taffy who still return to their stands after decades of business.
Amy Bliefnick has been the state fair manager for the past five years. She contends that the Illinois State Fair is a tradition — one that needs to be upheld for its benefits to the state and its citizens.
“The fair is important to Illinois,” she says. “Socially, it’s a time for us to come together as a state. Economically, it’s good for the city of Springfield for tourism. And it’s great for the livestock industry. This is the time where we can really celebrate how that industry affects us on a daily basis.”
The State Fair Act requires the Department of Agriculture to hold an annual state fair. It would be up to the General Assembly to introduce and pass legislation to cancel or shorten it.
Jeff Squibb, a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, has spent a lot of time discussing this issue with perturbed citizens, especially two years ago when the state suffered from extreme fiscal woes. Many people don’t realize that the Illinois State Fair largely funds itself, he says.
“People often confuse the funding sources,” Squibb says. “They think that eliminating the fair would reduce the state’s deficit. It really wouldn’t.”
According to the 1994 State Fair Act: “All revenues from the operation and use of any facilities of the Illinois State Fair in Springfield and the Springfield State Fairgrounds shall be deposited in the Illinois State Fair Fund.”
It further states, “All funds in the Illinois State Fair Fund shall be used by the Department of Agriculture in accordance with the appropriation by the General Assembly for the operation of the Illinois State Fair.”
Translation: the Illinois State Fair fund includes revenues from all events held at the fairgrounds throughout the year, from the fair to horse shows to wedding receptions, and makes them available to subsidize the Illinois State Fair. Additionally, the fair receives roughly $500,000 in general revenue funds for contest awards and premiums.
The latest compliance examination, released by the office of Illinois Auditor General William Holland in May 2008, reported that the Illinois State Fair was in the red during the studied two-year period. Expenditures totaled $7.4 million and revenues totaled $3.9 million, yielding a $3.4 million deficit for the 2007 fair. Comparably, expenditures totaled $7.8 million and revenues totaled $4 million, yielding a $3.8 million deficit for the 2006 fair. Figures for the 2008 and 2009 fairs will not be released until 2010.
The Illinois State Fair, operating on an estimated $5 million budget this year, will feature special traditions such as harness racing and the butter cow unveiling, but will also add elements to attract new and different crowds.
“An All-American Fair” celebrates both the Bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln and the presidency of Barack Obama. New exhibits include “Looking for Lincoln,” an opportunity for communities to highlight their connection to Honest Abe, and “Illinois Innovations,” an opportunity for colleges to showcase new inventions. Exotic creatures like monkeys and bears join the variety of animal exhibits and a new demolition derby jumpstarts the list of available entertainment.
“It is a good time to celebrate all of the great people who have come from our state, people who have accomplished wonderful things, but more important, good, old-fashioned American values and fun,” Bliefnick says.
Due to efforts to be more fiscally responsible, the Illinois State Fair will depend on fewer resources. Bliefnick points out that there is a smaller staff, fewer summer employees and fewer dollars going into Grandstand events.
Organizers have spent nearly $1 million on the 2009 Grandstand lineup, featuring various entertainers such as Kelly Clarkson, Montgomery Gentry and Heart. That’s a 20 percent drop from previous years. According to the Auditor General’s report, $1.2 million was spent on Grandstand shows in both 2006 and 2007. They always hope for regenerated revenue through concert ticket sales, Bliefnick says.
“It’s great to have Grandstand concerts at night, because they have a large crowd,” she says. “It really adds to the attendance throughout the daytime and gives people a reason to come to the fair.”
The Illinois State Fair historically boasted the cheapest admission rates in the nation: $3 for adults and free for kids 12 and younger. This year, organizers will increase admission prices for the first time in 19 years. Adults will now pay $5, children ages 5 to 12 pay $2 and kids under 5 get in free. It’s still affordable, Bliefnick says, since the average national state fair admission fee for adults is $8.50 and families can access free entertainment, play and activity areas once they enter the fairgrounds.
“It’s always been a goal of ours to make sure that families can afford to come,” Bliefnick says. “It is an increase, but it’s a modest increase compared to other types of entertainment.”
Bliefnick doesn’t worry about competition. She expects Chicago north-siders to attend the Wisconsin State Fair and southern Illinoisans to attend the Du Quoin State Fair, since they’re closer to home. Bliefnick does wish that she could reach locals who have never been to the fair.
“Those are the people I just want to grab and say, ‘Oh please, just come once and try it,’” she says. “If people came to the fair and knew different things that they get to see and experience, I think they would be repeat attendees.”
August weather plays a big role in who comes to the fair and hampers organizers’ attempts to set attendance goals. In 2007, heat advisories brought a smaller crowd of 613,100. Bliefnick says she mainly focuses on providing quality, affordable entertainment for families, while also making the fair fiscally responsible for the state.
“If I do those things, the dollars and the numbers should follow,” she says.
State Rep. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, supports the fair and agrees that it’s important to showcase the state’s No. 1 industry, which employs 24 to 25 percent of the workforce.
“It shows there’s a certain amount of prestige and winning that helps the economy of breeding and helps them make sure we produce better products in the state of Illinois,” he says.
The Illinois State Fair, as well as other events held on the fairgrounds throughout the year, also benefits the local economy by attracting people from all over the United States who frequent other area attractions, hotels and restaurants.
“It’s part of the great economic engine,” Poe says. “[Without the fair], the fairgrounds wouldn’t be maintained, and we wouldn’t have the shows we have out there year-round or the people who come to Springfield.”
According to the 2000 economic impact study, nearly $39 million of local business volume was directly generated by the Illinois State Fair. The fair also added nearly $1.2 million in state sales taxes, the study concludes, and created 1,445 jobs.
“For that $5 million spent to hold the state fair, the Springfield community gets a $40 million return,” Squibb, the Department of Agriculture spokesperson, says of the economic benefit. “Now more than ever the fair is needed. Either canceling it or reducing the number of days would be the wrong thing to do at this time.”
Families also need the Illinois State Fair.
“When families are struggling, when they’re looking to stretch their dollars, the fair provides an appealing entertainment alternative,” Squibb adds. “They’d be hard-pressed to find entertainment options that cost $5 for adults. There’s not many.”
Contact Amanda Robert at email@example.com.