The fairground budget needs $80,000 to $100,000 to make it through next year and avoid a fate similar to that of the Mason County Fair, which became privately run after the county dropped support in 2009. The fairgrounds lease is up next year and the fair, now called the Mason Area Fair, is expected to close.
On the other hand, the Grays Harbor County Fair has seen an uptick in attendance, which operators credit to a renewed focus on entertainment.
Thurston County officials met with residents last month to brainstorm ways to keep the fair not only going, but evolving.
“We are wracking our brains figuring out how to save the fair,” said county Commissioner Cathy Wolfe. “It’s not a mandated service or mandated by state law to do, but it is one of the last things we want to give up.”
For decades, the fair has provided an annual outlet for the county’s farmers, hobbyists and future agricultural generations to showcase their wares. It was staged in 17 locations before settling on a 27-acre site near Long Lake in Lacey in 1958.
Cities grew and urban sprawl spread to rural areas, eventually surrounding the modest fairgrounds with housing developments, schools and businesses. Funding sources changed; the county ceased its annual contribution from the general fund with the hope the fair would become self-sufficient. Exhibitors also evolved from those on rural county farms showing traditional livestock to urban youths working with dogs, cats and rabbits.
“As our urban environment changes as far as what’s available, old mom-and-pop farms are getting a lot smaller out there, and there are more housing developments,” said Ernie Skillingstad, fair board president.
The potential of losing a way to educate the next generation about the value of “a hard day’s work” cannot be taken lightly, he said.
“Kids that show animals and do events, they have a real-world work experience; they know how to work and take direction,” Skillingstad said.
The fairgrounds have an annual operating budget of about $500,000, 35 percent of which is revenue generated during the five days of the Thurston County Fair. That source of income depends heavily on good weather.
Attendance has ranged from 26,321 during a week of 90-degree temperatures in 2009 to the highest attendance in the past decade of 37,127, posted in 2007.
This year’s fair saw a drop in attendance blamed on a couple of 90-degree days, resulting in an estimated $20,000 loss of revenue.
The fair typically receives about $40,000 annually from the Legislature through the State Fair Fund, but fair manager Rick Storvick said that funding could be cut if the economy does not turn around.
The fairgrounds also are supported by money earned in the offseason through RV and boat storage, facility rental and special events. Such funding sources also have been declining over the past few years.
The fairgrounds hosted 55 weddings in 2009 and will have only 21 this year, Storvick said. To cut down on payroll, the fairground staff has been stripped to three three-quarter-time staffers and one full-time maintenance person.
A large portion of the fairground budget was traditionally funded through the county general fund until 2009.
“We had slowly been starting down the process of trying to reduce our dependence on the general fund,” Storvick said.
The fairgrounds received $146,698 from the county general fund in 2003. Staffers were able to cut costs, reducing the need to $113,251 in 2008.
General fund money was cut off the following year. The transition came in the midst of a recession, providing a fragile foundation to build from. It was paired with a required contribution to the county’s new 20-year maintenance fund.
“We are at a point where we need to figure out a long-term funding strategy that is going to be sustainable,” Storvick said.
A TRADITION ENDS
Before the Mason County Fair was discontinued, the county was losing more than $100,000 a year because of the fair, said Mason County Commissioner Steve Bloomsfield.
“It was during a period of time when the budget was very strained,” he said. “Declining trends in the budget and the consideration was where do we make the cuts necessary with the least impact, and the fair was one of them.”
The county handed the reins to John and Rachel Hansen, who created the nonprofit Northwest Event Organizers. The pair have been the driving force keeping the fair going the past couple of years and say they’re running out of steam.
“We wanted to prove to the community how important the fairgrounds are,” Rachel Hansen said, adding that it’s the only gathering place of its caliber in the county.
With six weeks remaining before the 2010 fair, the Hansens turned to the community and were able to raise $35,000 to help keep the fair going, but word that the county had pulled out had taken a toll on exhibit numbers. The fair attracted around 5,000 attendees that year.
When the county was involved, the fair attracted 10,000 to 35,000 people in the past 10 years.
This year that number rose to 15,000. The fair has operated the past couple of years on a $65,000 budget and a lot of volunteers.
Now the fair might be losing its fairgrounds location adjacent to Sanderson Airport in Shelton. The fairgrounds’ 50-year lease with the Port of Shelton is up in 2013, Hansen said.
“If someone wants to run it next year, it will be great, but we can’t afford to do it,” she said. “You need to see a future in something, but there is no future left for it. It’s ending, and there is no location for it.
SUCCESS IN ELMA
The Grays Harbor County Fair in Elma attracted more than 63,000 people this year, up 7,000 from the annual average.
That came after struggles in 2011.
“We haven’t been immune to the financial woes that face our county fairs these days,” said Mike Bruner, fair manager. “We had our struggles last year; we had a couple revenue sources and interim events that cancelled on us.”
Bruner attributes this year’s success on “perfect weather” and a push in marketing, attracting more people from across the state.
The Grays Harbor fair operates without funding from the county budget, excluding revenue from a tourism and hotel/motel tax that made up 11 percent of the fairgrounds’ $797,034 budget last year.
None of the fair budget comes from the county general fund or property taxes.
“Even the source of revenue that are not directly from ourselves, like the hotel/motel and stadium tax, we help generate those monies,” Bruner said.
Self-generated fees and rentals make up the bulk of the fairgrounds budget at 79 percent, which includes about 300 events other than the fair.
One of the biggest fair draws is the entertainment, Bruner said. The fair has hosted several popular acts, including tribute bands and country performers such as Kellie Pickler. Charlie Daniels was the featured performer in 2012.
Organizers also focus on packing in as much free entertainment as possible, hoping to attract more people, Bruner said.
“Money is tight for a lot of people,” he said. “That is a good value for a family.”
At a brainstorming session in Heritage Hall last month, more than 30 people met to offer solutions for the Thurston County Fair.
Among those in attendance were representatives from the Lacey Chamber of Commerce, Washington Young Farmers Association and Economic Development Council, as well as local business owners.
The most common ideas were adding a beer garden, making rental prices more competitive, creating more opportunities for young agricultural farmers, attracting more events during the offseason and providing entertainment throughout the fair.
“For adults to come to the fair right now, I don’t know if there really is a big draw without entertainment,” said Jennifer Taylor, 4-H volunteer. “Looking at other counties, if you look at their events they all have shows or some bigger entertainment, and you look at ours and it was very sad.”
Another idea was having the young people spend more up-close-and-personal time with the animals, such as having cow-milking contests.
Other ideas included updating the wares shown in the commercial hall, using it as a platform to showcase modern technology.
Some suggested having band contests, car shows, chili cook-offs, rodeos and fireworks outside fair season.
Others said fair staff needed to update the fairground website more with upcoming events.
After two hours, participants ended the meeting with plans to hold a second one.
The support shown by county businesses impressed Lucas Patzek of the WSU Extension.
“There was a great amount of backing and energy, and tapping into that and snowballing it into something would be great if that happens,” Patzek said.
County officials plan to meet Wednesday to choose the best ideas brought up during brainstorming.
“We will look through the record of that session and pick ideas that seem really ripe for implementation,” said Cliff Moore, director of the county’s Resource Stewardship department.
The plan is to create subcommittees to put the ideas into action for next year, Moore said. He also is confident the commissioners will allocate funds to the fair budget for next year.
“(The fair) is a tradition in itself; I never want to see Thurston County lose our county fair like our neighbor county Mason County,” said Commissioner Karen Valenzuela. “I never want our kids ever having to go north to another county fair or south to a regional fair.”