County fair thrives despite budget cuts
by Jonathan Partridge | Patterson Irrigator
Jul 25, 2012 | 2107 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Caitlyn Wherry and her goat, Tiramisu, stretch their legs with a brisk walk around the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds on Tuesday, July 10, 2012. The Stanislaus County Fair opens this Friday, July 13, but the Pre-Fair events have already begun with local 4-H and FFA students competing in the Livestock competition.
Lisa James / Patterson Irrigator
Caitlyn Wherry and her goat, Tiramisu, stretch their legs with a brisk walk around the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds on Tuesday, July 10, 2012. The Stanislaus County Fair opens this Friday, July 13, but the Pre-Fair events have already begun with local 4-H and FFA students competing in the Livestock competition. Lisa James / Patterson Irrigator
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The throngs of people attending the Stanislaus County Fair this month might not have noticed the changes, but organizers trimmed $240,000 from their annual budget this year as the state jettisoned funding for county fairs.

Organizers were forced to get creative, seeking new sponsors and creating a fundraising foundation to help make up the difference.

“Our goal was to make sure whatever cuts we made were as invisible as possible,” said Chris Borovansky, the CEO of the Stanislaus County Fair, last week.

Those include cuts to marketing and entertainment expenses, as the county fair coped with a loss of $180,000 in state allocations and as well as a loss of $60,000 in expenses for audits, vehicle insurance and other types of insurance the state previously covered. The fair maintained a $3.8 million budget.

Legislators voted last year to eliminate the annual Fairs and Exposition Fund from the 2011-12 budget, a total loss of $32 million. The cut marked the end of a subsidy that local fairs throughout California relied upon to help them operate.

While some of the smallest fairs will lose half their funding as a result of the state cuts, the Stanislaus County Fair’s funds dropped by only about 7 percent, Borovansky said.

“The impact for us is going to sting,” he said. “It’s not going to kill us.”

Still, organizers of the local fair had to find ways to reduce their respective budgets before the event started, said Bill Mattos, the president of the Stanislaus County Fair board. For instance, the fair no longer sends out promotional gifts, and it cut back on publicity a bit, he said.

One substantial change is the elimination of annual fair themes that often focused on specific trends or agricultural commodities. Past themes include last year’s “Centennial Celebration” and, in 2010, “Flavors of the Valley.”

Instead, the fair created a new permanent logo — two horses in harness pulling the words “Stanislaus County Fair,” with the phrase “Imagine the Fun” emblazoned below. Fair spokeswoman Adrenna Alkhas described the logo as part of a rebranding effort and said it would continue to be used in the coming years.

Despite the need to do more with less money, the fair continues to be financially successful, board members and organizers said. In 2011, the county fair attracted record attendance, drawing 245,000 visitors during a 10-day run and taking in nearly $1 million in gate receipts alone.

Final statistics for this year were not available as of press time, but Borovansky said he expected numbers to be slightly down from last year, which was a record year for the fair. Still, he said fair organizers did not expect another year of record-breaking attendance, and he was pleased with the overall event this year.

Though the fair cut back on entertainment expenses, both Mattos and Borovansky said they would pit Stanislaus County’s lineup — which included former Poison frontman Bret Michaels and country stars LeAnn Rimes and Kellie Pickler — against that of the California State Fair in Sacramento any day. Headliners at that event, which runs July 12 through July 29, include classic pop-rock star Jim Messina, 1980s rocker Rick Springfield and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, which played at the Stanislaus fair last year.

“I wouldn’t trade our entertainment lineup for their lineup in a New York minute,” Borovansky said.

Local fair officials said, though, that they suspected other fairs might not do as well in light of the state cuts.

“I can’t see how smaller fairs are going to survive this,” Mattos said. “We’ll see next year.”

Stephen Chambers, the executive director of the nonprofit Western Fairs Association, which represents the fair industry throughout the western United States and Canada, said the Stanislaus County Fair is leading the way in innovation among county fairs. It gained first-place awards at the most recent Western Fairs Association convention for last year’s social media campaign, a fitness campaign run in conjunction with the Stanislaus County Office of Education, its exhibitor handbook and a mobile phone text game it created.

“Certainly, the fair in Turlock is looked at by other fairs as a leader in doing smart things,” Chambers said.

Representatives from several fairs throughout the San Joaquin Valley visited July 18 to see what the Stanislaus County Fair was doing right, he said.

Many fairs throughout the state are attracting record-setting crowds despite making drastic cuts, Chambers said, describing the scenario as “a really interesting contradiction.”

Still, he said it would take only a couple of poor financial years in a row to eliminate some of the small and medium-sized fairs in California.

“Most fairs can survive one bad run, but if we were to get two bad years, that could really disrupt their operations,” he said.

That’s why Chambers and other fair advocates say it is important for the state to reinstate funding for local fairs. State figures indicate that county fairs produced $160 million to $170 million annually in sales and income tax revenue in recent years, he said. The Turlock fair alone yielded about $350,000 in sales tax revenue and generated about $24 million in spending activity, Borovansky said.

“If we thought that fair funding would take money away from law enforcement, education and fire services, we wouldn’t ask for it,” Chambers said. “But we believe that we generate revenue, and there’s a lot of data to support that.”

Western Fairs Association representatives have supported creative ways to restore fair funding, such as a proposed eight-character vanity license plate, with proceeds benefiting county fairs.

At the same time, Borovansky said there are some benefits to being independent of the state, which gives Stanislaus County’s fair more local control over its operations. The state Department of General Services has several contracting restrictions, such as detailed reports on recycling and audit requirements that seek to ensure the fair is following state regulations, he said.

“We need to turn like a sports car, not like a battleship, and the state sometimes turns like a battleship,” Borovansky said.

Fair officials also hope a new county fair foundation, set up this year, will help by raising $100,000 to $200,000 for future expenses, such as reroofing and heating, venting and air-conditioning, he said.

Contact Jonathan Partridge at 892-6187, ext. 26, or jonathan@pattersonirrigator.com.

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