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County fairs bring more than fried food and fun to a community. They generate cash, according to experts.

The Effingham County Fair on average makes roughly $20,000 annually, according to fair officials. That income depends on many factors. But there's a broader economic impact across the region because of the visitors coming into the area, spending money in local establishments for goods and services.

University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana graduate assistant Alex Norr recently partnered with the Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs and the University of Illinois Extension to study the economic impact of county fairs. It used surveys and research to provide an economic and social analysis of 2014 agricultural fairs throughout the state.

Of the 104 agricultural county fairs held each year, 15 were studied. The study split Illinois into three sections – north, central and south – and studied five counties in each. The Effingham County Fair was not among the 15 studied, but the fairs in Fayette, Clark and Richland counties were.

Agricultural county fairs created about 1,000 Illinois jobs and their economic impact was estimated at $90 million across the state, the study concluded. The impact in Central Illinois was $17 million, the study said. The impact in Southern Illinois – which included Effingham and Fayette counties, in the study – came to $12 million.

In the central zone, households spent an average of $76 at the fair and $113 in the southern zone, according to the study. Adding in things, such as transportation, retail spending, lodging and other items, the totals were $155 in the central zone and $208 in the southern zone, the study said.

In 2014, the Illinois Department of Agriculture allotted $5.1 million to county fairs, with a large portion going toward agricultural fairs.

“All this economic activity is created by that $5 million for county fairs and increases a lot of economic activity, which is a pretty good investment,” said Effingham County Fair Board President Phil Hartke.

Hartke cited restoration work this year at the Society Horse Barn as one example of the way the fair contributes to the local economy. Supplies were purchased from local vendors and local workers did the job, he said.

Another example, he said, are the fair vendors who purchase their supplies at local grocery stores.

“It affects tourism for sure," said Sarah Stephen, Altamont's city clerk. "We have competitors in the horse racing, demo derby and tractor pulls that travel to compete and they stay here, buy fuel, and eat in our restaurants.”

“It’s just an economic circle that keeps rolling," Hartke added.

Meanwhile, there are also social benefits.

“The local community benefits from the fair, because it acts as a catalyst for continuing local traditions, increasing unity within the community, and providing agriculture education,” said the study Norr wrote.

That seems to be the case with the Effingham County Fair.

“Throughout the Altamont area, it brings people together,” Stephen said of the annual extravaganza in her town. “You’ll see people out there having lunch together. It’s good for families and it’s an event that they enjoy."

She also noted that high attendance at the fair's shows demonstrates their popularity.

“It helps put money into Altamont and it’s just very good for the community,” Stephen said.

Dawn Burrow, president of the Altamont Chamber of Commerce, agreed.

“You lose your heritage when you lose the fair," Burrow said. "I’m a firm believer in the county fairs, and this is a good way to nail the tradition."

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