State Fairs Sell Good Old Days in New-Fashioned Ways

Maybe it's the annual tractor pulls, or the aristocratic waves of the state fair queens. Maybe it's the life-size butter sculpture of a cow.

Something about a state fair still draws people in. Iowa's rural ritual -- made famous in the 1945 classic movie, "State Fair" -- is the cream of the crop of the annual all-American extravaganzas, featuring deep-fried Twinkies, a prize for the fattest pigeon and a battle of the banjos.

But in some states, the traditional festival seems to be losing its luster. Next door to Iowa, Nebraska saw its fair attendance dip 6 percent and ended up $975,000 in debt last summer after state budget cuts forced the elimination of cash prizes for winners of popular competitions, such as the swine and llama contests. This year, Nebraska is restoring some prizes, cutting admission prices, and, like other states where attendance is down, seeking fresh and innovative sources of funding.

State fairs are held in almost every state. Dating from before the Civil War, they have evolved from their agricultural roots to include powerhouse concerts and digital exhibits alongside the pigs, cows and summer's harvest.

"Each fair is completely different," Mindy Patterson, membership director of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, said. "A state fair's success really depends on where you are. It depends on the economy, and some states have several state fairs, which changes things."

This August in Des Moines, Iowa's fair is celebrating its sesquicentennial -- or 150th anniversary -- and what it hopes will be its third consecutive year of attendance that eclipses the 1 million mark. The key to Iowa's success? "Iowans have always cherished and supported their state fair," says Iowa fair manager Gary Slater.

It also helps that the Iowa State Fair is listed in the 2003 book "1000 Places To See Before You Die," capitalizing even now on the fame induced by the Phil Strong novel that later made it to Broadway and the silver screen. Martha Stewart even taped an hour-long special on the fairgrounds.

In addition, the state of Iowa funds capital improvement to the fairgrounds and has contributed about two-thirds of the $53 million raised and spent by the Iowa State Fair Foundation over the last 10 years, Slater said.

Across the border, the Nebraska State Fair in Lincoln hasn't demonstrated the same success. In 2003, the Legislature zeroed out funding, and attendance last August dropped 6 percent, with 26 percent fewer people entering contests. Nebraska State Fair Foundation Director Kristine Gale said that the lack of cash prizes "devastated us."

"It was disappointing for competitors," she said.

But Gale is optimistic about the future. In addition to reducing weekday admission fees and adding more weekday concerts, the fair this year will receive some help from the Legislature, which will reinstate $159,000, about half of the 2002 funding. Additionally, the Nebraska Legislature passed a measure letting voters decide whether to set aside 10 percent of lottery revenues for the state fair. If passed, the resolution on the Nov. 2 ballot could generate about $2 million, funding that Gale said would be a tremendous help to the fair.

"It would be incredible for us," Gale said. "Our facilities are very poor, and we haven't had the revenues to keep them up or improve them at all."

Gale compared Nebraska's current circumstance with one that Iowa had faced.

"Iowa was struggling about 12 years ago," Gale said. "It was a situation very similar to Nebraska's. They went to their state government and received $26 million, and started a foundation that was able to raise $17 million. They were able to totally renovate their grounds into a great facility. We hope that we can be like that."

The Nebraska State Fair also is looking to gain more support through a foundation that was activated last year and hopes to raise $8 million over the next 20 years.

Nebraska isn't alone. Numerous fairs have lost funding as states, faced with their worst financial problems since World War II over the past four years, had to make hard choices of where to cut spending: education, health care, state fairs? To recover, state fairs are trying to get back on track through alternative sources.

In 1994, the Michigan State Fair lost all of its state funding and turned to corporate sponsorships, including General Motors, Pepsi Cola and Pfizer, to bring in revenue. The fair is now on the rebound and attendance is increasing yearly, a fair official said. Maryland tried the same tactic six years ago, picking up businesses such as Toyota and Comcast, and other states have done the same.

Maryland fair officials even floated an idea to bring in slot machines, but the Legislature didn't buy off on adding gambling to the traditional fair fare.

The Minnesota State Fair lost about $1.2 million in revenue in 2003 when the state Legislature no longer allowed the fair to keep the 6.5 percent sales tax collected on admission, Fair Manager Jerry Hammer said. As a result, fair officials have deferred maintenance and avoided any new capital projects, but Hammer said he has no plans to ask the government for money anytime soon.

"We prefer not to go to the government for anything," Hammer said. "When you do, there are always strings attached. The reason our fair has been consistently successful for decades is because there's been minimal government involvement."

In some cases, state legislatures are trying to rescue fairs that are victim to a struggling economy. The Colorado State Fair has lost $1.6 million since 1997, according to Manager Chris Wiseman, but two new sources of income could alleviate the shortages.

Starting next year, Coloradans can check off a box on their state income tax form to donate money to the state fair, a technique that typically has raised about $200,000 for other causes. Additionally, the state is directing that some interest from abandoned property go to the state fair for promotions, yielding perhaps $385,000 to $500,000 a year, Wiseman said.

In Kansas, fair manager Denny Stoecklein said that recent years have been good for the Sunflower State's fair, in part because of $29 million in bonds issued by the state of Kansas in 2001 for renovations. He said improvements to the Hutchinson, Kan., fairgrounds have renewed enthusiasm for the fair, which takes place in September.

Fair season already is well under way in some of the southern states, such as Florida, and most of the talk from those fair managers has been very optimistic, Stoecklein said.

"There's some talk that with fuel prices now hitting $2 a gallon, we might see people looking for entertainment and vacation options a little closer to home," he said. "So even a negative in the economy can be positive for fairs." 

Tags: Economy