SEATTLE - The Grays Harbor County Fair will celebrate its 100th anniversary this summer, commemorating the tens of thousands of people the event draws to Elma year after year.
“It is our county’s signature event,” said Mike Bruner, fairgrounds and tourism manager for the county.
But beyond its centennial, the future of the fair and several other smaller fairs across Washington that get money from the state is uncertain.
As the Legislature struggles to fill a multibillion-dollar shortfall in the state budget, state subsidies to fairs are another expense on the chopping block.
The state typically allocates $2 million annually to a fair fund the state Department of Agriculture disburses to about 70 county, community and youth fairs across Washington.
The governor has proposed suspending the fair fund for the current fiscal year and reducing it to $500,000 for each of the next two years. The supplemental budget approved by the House on Monday would cut the fund to $550,000 for the current fiscal year and eliminate it for the next biennium.
A final decision on fair funding will be made later as the House and Senate hash out their budget plans.
Grays Harbor is one of almost 30 fairs that indicated they probably won’t survive if state funding is eliminated, according to a survey released this month by the Washington State Fairs Association.
Rep. Ross Hunter, DMedina, chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, said funding fairs is not one of the state’s core responsibilities.
“I think fairs are really nice things,” he said. “I like going to them, I take my kids to them, (and) I remember them fondly as a child. (But) we’re going to have to peel back and focus our funding on core priorities of government, and this isn’t one.”
Although a $2 milliona-year cut pales in comparison to potentially huge reductions in health care and other programs, fair supporters say the loss of funding could have a big effect .
The Grays Harbor fair received about $43,000 from the state last year, mostly to fund awards and cash prizes for contestants who exhibit animals or crafts at the fair.
The fair also receives $50,000 to $75,000 a year from the county through tourism-based tax revenue. But without the state money, the fair might not be able to afford the prizes.
And without prizes, fewer contestants would participate, leading to fewer exhibits, fewer people attending the fair, and, ultimately, less ticket revenue, fair officials said.
The state-subsidy cut “has a pretty wide-ranging ripple effect,” Bruner said.
Although the Grays Harbor fair might continue for a few years without the state money, Bruner said it would struggle in the long run. “It would mean the beginning of the end for our fair,” he said.
The San Juan County Fair in Friday Harbor also will take a financial hit if the fair fund is suspended, said fair and events manager Rev Shannon. The fair received $39,000 from the state last year.
“It’s an economic engine within the county,” Shannon said.