No fun and no funds

Fair cancellation impacts nonprofits

Many people will have more time on their hands this August. During a typical August, thousands of individuals volunteer at the Illinois State Fair staffing parking lots, admission gates and Grandstand concessions to help local charities and community organizations raise needed funds. No fair means a significant loss of revenue for these organizations. The American Business Club of Springfield (ABC) and its many partner organizations, the Animal Protective League and Rotary Club of Springfield Sunrise are just a few examples of nonprofits who are impacted. The loss of revenue is easier to quantify than the loss of social interaction and camaraderie associated with volunteering at the fair.

ABC has been responsible for gate admissions since 2004 and has handled Grandstand concession sales since 1954. ABC members partner with volunteers from other community groups, which receive a donation for their efforts. You can't enter the Illinois State Fair without passing by one of these volunteers. More than 3,000 people devote over 19,000 hours to manage this operation, which is a year-long process to organize. Last year, ABC donated more than $90,000 to 59 different organizations for their help at the admission gates. And, ABC awarded nearly $60,000 in grants from revenues generated through Grandstand concessions.

Church groups, sororities and fraternities, middle and high school clubs and sports teams, the Faith Coalition for the Common Good, Brother James Court and the Kiwanis Club are examples of organizations that helped last year and received funding for their programs. Many return to volunteer every year. Participants also have fun, even when they work 10-hour days.

Kevin Lust has been involved at the fair since ABC first became responsible for admissions and says the social aspect can't be overstated. Friendships have been formed that continue over many years, and Lust says their involvement is a tremendous recruiting tool. ABC has grown to be the largest Ambucs chapter in the country, with over 220 members. Ambucs helps people with disabilities, and ABC donates dozens of specially designed AmTrykes to local children and veterans.

The Springfield Southeast High School Baseball Team has volunteered with ABC for many years. Coach Brad Leininger cites many benefits, in addition to raising money for uniforms, practice equipment and other needs. He credits ABC with giving teams the opportunity to work together. "We are a family, on and off the field," says Leininger.

Working at the fair brings families together, and Leininger says he benefits by getting to know parents he isn't able to talk to while on the field coaching. Separately from ABC, Leininger also helps organize barn cleaning, which is often described in more colorful terms. This is another way youth sports teams and community groups raise money during the fair. "Working at the fair helps teach kids a work ethic," says Leininger.

The Animal Protective League (APL) is located just north of the fairgrounds on Taintor Road. For over 20 years, APL has raised funds during the fair by operating a campground and parking cars. This has grown to generate $25,000 - $30,000 annually, and the funding comes at an important time as donations typically slow down in summer. APL is now considering creative fundraising alternatives, such as having a virtual parking event.

Deana Corbin, APL executive director, also cites the social benefits. She says volunteers are essential, and APL is lucky to have so many people who are generous with their time. She is amazed that some volunteers take vacation time to help because they like doing it so much. Many campers return each year, forging friendships with other campers.

The Rotary Club of Springfield Sunrise has operated a parking lot near the corner of Sangamon Avenue and Peoria Road for many years, thanks to a partnership with Ace Hardware, which owns the property. All proceeds are allocated to a community grants program, which helps disadvantaged children. The Sunrise Rotary Club distributes around $10,000 annually to local organizations that help youth, and parking revenue generates a significant portion. Many fair visitors choose to park in the lot because proceeds help kids. Although it is challenging to staff the lot for the duration of the fair, members enjoy the camaraderie and getting to know each other better.

The irony is that so many organizations are needing to raise money while restrictions are in place on people gathering and numerous fundraising events have been cancelled. There is no simple way to replace funds normally generated through the fair. With no state fair, organizations will miss out on funds, and the many volunteers will also miss the fun associated with working at the Illinois State Fair to support a cause that is important to them.

Karen Ackerman Witter is a frequent contributor to Illinois Times. She is a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield Sunrise and has spent many hours parking cars during the fair. Her State Fair memories include seeing The Who open for The Association (her favorite band at the time) and explaining Rotary to people on their way to the KISS concert.

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