By: Holly Spangler My Generation
Writing this blog from the Beck’s cattle barn at the Madison County, Ohio, fairgrounds, one thing is clear: Public-private partnerships will be the only things that save our county fairs.
A couple of years back, I pulled into the Fulton County Fairgrounds, my youngest in tow. We were there to make up stalls, before the fair even began. From the backseat came a tiny voice, breathless in anticipation, clear with intent: “I heart the Fulton County Fair.”
George Strait played on the radio, I was driving a diesel pickup, and my baby girl proclaimed her love for the fair. It really doesn’t get any better than that. Who’s with me?
The truth is, for those of us who’ve been bit by the county fair bug, our strange affection for a week of livestock and sweat and dirty little kids runs deep enough to cause us to volunteer hours of our lives and hundreds of our dollars. We support the fair, even when it’s not easy.
For sure, it’s not easy these days. Although by law the state is supposed to match county fair dollars at 66 2/3%, that match has dwindled to 33 1/3% — and generally far less. Or not at all. State dollars might come in September. Or not until January. As a county fair board, how do you plan?
“You have to plan like you won’t get anything and hope you get something,” says Neil Fearn, a longtime Edwards County Fair Board member.
Last year, in year two of the budget crisis, Edwards County didn’t expect to get any money. They took out open shows and horse racing, held fundraisers, and then got a state check for half again what they’d hoped — so they put open shows back in this year.
It’s hard to complain about fair money when roads need fixed and kids with disabilities need services and DCFS needs more social workers. Granted, the fair is a good program for youth in the community; it brings people to town, and they eat at restaurants and buy from ag supply stores. “But you can’t growl about not getting fair funding when the state’s broke,” Fearn says.
So you do it yourself, the old-fashioned way.
“The state’s never going to fix anything,” says Katie Pratt, Lee County Fair Board. “The hardworking people of Illinois will fix it.”
For a county fair, that means you live within your means. Pratt says they might not be a fair with the big concert or the highest premiums, but the Lee County Fair is alive and kicking and providing a good experience for the kids who show up.
It also means stepping up your fundraising game with donor levels and recognition, and calling in favors. Lee County looks for people who can spread gravel free of charge, who can rewire barns free of charge.
Sometimes it’s easier to give an hour of your time doing what you do best, than asking for a check,” Pratt says.
Amen to that.
And in the age of Pinterest, Lee County has found a new revenue stream: weddings and events. The fairgrounds is the only game in town with a building that can seat 300 to 400 people, and where you can bring whatever food you’d like. It’s booked solid every weekend until October, with weddings, reunions and more.
Pinterest aside, this is the age of public-private partnerships in Illinois. We’re learning that the only way we’ll get support for the things we value downstate is by getting it done locally, with community and business support. Fearn says they raised upward of $25,000 last year, from one of the smallest counties in the state. They served 1,100 people at a fish fry. That’s more than half the population of the county seat.
“If we didn’t have good community support, we’d be in a real bind,” he says.
If any of us have any success in that area, it will be by drawing on tradition. By reminding people why they love what they love. And why they value what they value. That’s why we invest time and energy: so our sweaty little fair kids can someday pull into the fairgrounds and say: I love this place.