The state government of Illinois still has no budget. The impact of this state-of-the-state on the 102 fairs who are members of the Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs has meant a lot of struggle, but also is a powerful catalyst that has resulted in a better motivated fair coalition.
Even as challenges loom in the year ahead for Illinois fairs, the 107th annual convention of the Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs, which featured the annual crowning of Miss Illinois County Fair Queen was a success. "We had a successful convention," said Charlyn Fargo, Executive Secretary, Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs. "For a lot of our fairs, it's their way of saying thank you to their volunteers by sending them to the convention. Our fairs get really involved in the pageant and the convention. They come here and get a lot of new ideas."
More than 90 of the association's member fairs and festivals were represented with more than 3,500 in attendance, a strong, if not record, turnout. The trade show exhibition floor featured 90 booths, an increase over the 2016 exhibition booth allotment; also 30 associate members sponsored hospitality rooms, including carnivals as well as motor sports/tractor & truck pulling companies. "We had a very successful trade show," said Fargo. "There continues to be an increase in fairs offering motorized sports, and we had a nice wide variety of entertainment."
Both the economy and many fairs are struggling due to the inability of the legislature and governor to agree on a state budget. "The business climate is very difficult in Illinois, the lack of a budget has affected everything," said Fargo.
A recovery-resistant state economy, lagging consumer confidence and uncertain status of fair funding are just some of the main ramifications of the state government operating without a state budget. In spite of these obstacles - not to mention an unbearably hot heat wave - the fair industry in Illinois had a positive 2016. "Some fairs were hard hit, but overall, last year was successful for fairs," she said. "A lot of people are staying local for their vacation, because of the economy, so that helped fair attendance."
While the state has cut funding for agricultural fairs, Fargo said it remained flat in 2016 but even that spending was hampered by the state government issues. In lieu of a state budget, spending approval is conducted by the slower and less sustainable stop-gap measures. By the end of last year, government support may have arrived later than previous years causing some budgetary headaches for fairs, but "most of the fairs have gotten checks from the State Department of Agriculture," said Fargo. "The funding ended up being the same last year as it was the year before."
What lays in store for funding in 2017 was uncertain at the time of the annual convention of the Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs, with Fargo noting that the opening days of the new legislative session coincided with the association's meeting. "We're hopeful that funding will continue and will be in the new budget, but the legislature was just in session with the convention," she said.
The association has "hired a full time lobbyist to make sure we are part of the budget debate," she said. However, the lobbying effort was not "part of the convention," she said. In March, the organizations holds a legislative meeting focusing on lobbying and other political issues. Two years ago, the Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs released the "Economic Impact of Illinois Agricultural Fairs," a study conducted by the University of Illinois that concluded Illinois fairs generated $170 million in spending.
Fargo said the association is intent on "making sure the legislators" understand the findings of the study, but also "the county fairs are encouraged to use the impact study to show how important fairs are for each county's economy. We can bring this to companies and use it not just for funding from the state, but for sponsorships and support from communities and local businesses."
Jeremy Parsons, manager of the Clay County Fair, was a keynote speaker at the convention, and he addressed how fairs can better outreach to communities. "He spoke of making an impact and how we can tally up the volunteers and employees, and how to make people know who your fair is impacting your local economy, making people aware that the money spent at the fair is staying local."
In addition, Jennifer Giesike President/CEO Washington Town and Country Fair Washington, MO, spoke on how after enduring the loss of state support for the fair, "succeeded with sponsorships."
According to Giesike (A PDF of highlights of her presentation are available on the Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs website), sponsorships at the Washington Town and Country Fair went from $65,000 in 2003 - the year state funding was cut - to $246,000 in 2015, a more than 300 percent increase in the last 10 years. One of her points is expanding the array of available sponsorships and customizing "benefit packages for sponsors," with Sponsorships now ranging from $100 - $25,000.
Other workshops at the convention included: "Using Social Media Tools to improve your Fair's and your Business' Bottom Line." With future state support in jeopardy and the state economy stuck in the doldrums, the consensus at the convention was that the fairs had to become more proactive in increasing their community outreach, attendance and spending. "We are trying to encourage our fairs to be less dependent on state funding and get more of their funding from sponsors and other things," said Fargo. "Some fairs are forming nonprofit foundations to fund some of their projects that need to be done, and we had several workshops on marketing, advertising and looking at ways that were successful in creating more excitement for your fairs through social media, so you don't have to spend as much of your budget on advertising."
A main feature of the convention however was the annual coronation of Illinois royalty.
Claudia VanOpdorp of the Henry County Fair was crowned the 58th Miss Illinois County Fair Queen. VanOpdorp will be a summer employee of the Department of Agriculture, travel to about 30 county fairs, and will be the official hostess of the Illinois State Fair in Springfield and the DuQuoin State Fair. As Queen, VanOpdorp's main duty is to emphasize the importance of agriculture and county fairs to Illinois.
Another highlight of the annual convention is the bestowing of the Friend of Illinois County Fairs Award, which recognizes individuals from county fairs across the State who have donated their time, efforts and unique contributions to the Fair Industry. According to the association's press release, the prestigious award was given to five recipients in 2017:
Phil Hartke, Effingham County Fair; Dean Page - Boone County Fair Association; Jane Cross - Richland County Fair; Don Moffitt, Representative in the Illinois General Assembly for 23 years; and State Senator John Sullivan, who is retiring from office this year. According to the association's press release: "Senator Sullivan…the lone State Senator with a farm background… was always accessible, approachable, and always willing to work with the Association concerning funding issues..."