State fairs feel budget pinch this year

Saturday, August 16, 2003

Sheldon Geison is used to winning contests for such things as best plate of sweet corn and best grain bundle at the Illinois State Fair.

But the farmer's prizes were on the light side this year: only $20 for the corn and $5 for the grain.

"It's not a lot to some people, but it's gas money" to the fair and back, said Geison, who would have won $54 and $10 for the same titles last year.

Geison can blame it on the sour economy. With Illinois facing a $5 billion budget deficit, lawmakers are cutting back on prize money, maintenance and advertising at the state fair.

It's a story playing out across the country: Families seeking their annual dose of corn dogs and carnival rides are finding higher ticket prices, fewer exhibits and more expensive food.

Many state fairs have increased admission this year. New York and Oklahoma, for instance, both raised prices by $2 -- to $10 and $7, respectively.

The Missouri State Fair, which ends Sunday, raised adult admission $1 to $7.

"We looked at admission prices at other fairs and found we were significantly less expensive," said fair commission chairman Lowell Mohler in February, when the increase was announced. Even with the increase, he said, "the fair is still a bargain."

Cutbacks affecting other state fairs include:

Eliminating prize money in Nebraska;

Taking $1.6 million in sales taxes away from the Minnesota fair over the next two years;

Cutting exhibits by six state agencies, such as the Education Department and the Historical Society, in Kentucky;

Blocking the California fair from filling 11 vacancies in its staff of 100.

"It's happening pretty much across the board, across the country," said Jim Tucker, president of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions.

Some fairs get money directly from state government. With many states trying to erase budget deficits, the fairs become targets for cuts. That means making do with over-the-hill musical acts, less advertising and fewer cleaning crews sweeping the streets.

Fair attendance for the first four days of this year's Illinois State Fair was 347,250. At the same time last year, under a less strict method of estimating, the figure was 622,000.

"Often cutting budgets in the events world is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you reduce the elements that attract people to your event, then you cause a decline in attendance," said Stephen Chambers, executive director of the Western Fairs Association.

Missouri State Fair officials said Friday attendance was down slightly, according to the Web site About 185,000 people went to the first five days of the fair, compared to more than 190,000 for the same period last year.

However, officials hope good weather and weekend concerts will push the numbers up to match last year's total attendance of 360,000 people.

The Oklahoma Labor Department conducts safety inspections on roller coasters and other rides at fairs there. Cutbacks have left the department with four inspectors instead of the five or six of past years, and Labor Commissioner Brenda Reneau Wynn said that may not be enough.

"I know the public would be more satisfied if we could get around to every single ride. It will be a miracle if we can," she said.

Even fairs that get no state money at all face difficult times as they compete for the public's entertainment dollar.

California's CalExpo is entirely self-supporting, said Assistant General Manager Brian May, but staff vacancies cannot be filled because of the budget crisis. The prospect of massive layoffs also makes it tougher to sell tickets in the state capital, he said.

Fair managers say visitors won't notice most of the cutbacks, and the Illinois fairgrounds are still full of people happily munching on funnel cakes, competing in horse shows or listening to a free performance by a country band.

There are noticeable differences, though.

Cleaning crews are slower to clean up the litter. The University of Illinois isn't giving away ice cream. The blacksmiths and carpenters who demonstrated their skills are gone, replaced by a display of RVs.

"We're skimping along like everybody else," May said.

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