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Budget Shortfalls No Fun For State Fairs; Events Seen As Not 'Essential' In Tough Times

USA TODAY, February 10, 2009

By Jeff Martin

State and county fairs, staples of family entertainment across the country for more than a century, are scrambling to find revenue sources as the economic crisis forces government budget cuts and raises the possibility some of them could close.

Faced with a $1.6 billion state budget deficit, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, last week proposed selling or leasing the 160-year-old Michigan State Fair. She says state fairs "are not an essential purpose of government."

In Washington, the King County Fair, founded in 1863, was about to close before the city of Enumclaw stepped in and agreed to run it for one more year while a task force explores long-term funding options, says Mark Bauer, city administrator.

The South Dakota State Fair, which has been held for 123 years, faces one of the toughest budget fights in the country, says Jim Tucker, president and CEO of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions.

If Republican Gov. Mike Rounds' proposed budget cut of $774,643 stands, it will be difficult to hold a state fair this summer, says George Williams, deputy secretary for Agriculture, the state department that oversees the fair. South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Bill Even says the proposed cuts would take effect July 1, the start of fiscal year 2010.

Corporate sponsorship has become part of the solution in some states, including Indiana. The Indiana State Fair partnered with a private company to bring in $1.5 million in corporate sponsorships for last summer's fair in Indianapolis, says Executive Director Cindy Hoye, who hopes to find similar support for the fair scheduled for August. Such sponsors are becoming more difficult to find, says William Chipps, senior editor of the Chicago-based IEG Sponsorship Report. Even so, he says, sponsorship of fairs and festivals is "expected to hold up fairly well, given the economy."

Spending on sponsorships for festivals, fairs and annual events in North America is projected to be $786 million in 2009, up 4.4% over 2008, the most recent IEG Sponsorship Report states.

In Texas, the privately run state fair is "the perfect stage to launch new products," says Vicki Kidd, a marketing manager with Chevrolet. The company did 27,368 test drives at the fair last year, Kidd says.

State Fair of Texas Inc. is a private, non-profit corporation that gets no government funding. The fair, held in Dallas, is entirely self-supporting and profitable, fair spokeswoman Sue Gooding says.

Among states coping with state funding cuts:

*Kansas. The State Fair in Hutchinson has received about $70,000 from state funds in the past, but General Manager Denny Stoecklein says he doesn't expect that amount for the next fiscal year. "We're trying to get some, if not all of that, reinstated, but we're planning as if it is not going to be there," he says. The Kansas State Fair has a total budget of about $4.5 million, he says.

*Colorado. "Everything is up in the air because the state of Colorado is facing a $600 million shortfall," says Chris Wiseman, general manager of the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo. The fair recently implemented a four-day workweek, and Wiseman says officials are trying to reduce expenses, which will likely mean less spent on entertainment.

*Ohio. The fair cut fireworks last year and saved about $35,000, says Virgil Strickler, general manager of the Ohio State Fair in Columbus. Strickler expects they will do the same thing this year. Ohio has received about $360,000 in state funds annually. The fair has a budget of about $13 million, he says.

Martin reports for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D. Contributing: Kathleen Gray, Detroit Free Press.