A cut in state funding could put some county fairs at risk

EFFINGHAM — Once upon a time, Illinois county fairs were reimbursed more than 50 percent of the prize money they paid to the winners of livestock shows and other competitive events.

But those days have been gone for quite some time, with the reimbursement for premiums, as they're called at the fair, hugging the 30 percent level for the past several years.

Now, Gov. Bruce Rauner has announced that funding to cover fair rehabilitation projects and premiums could be cut completely. Area fair officials are sweating out what they call a crisis.

Effingham County Fair Board Chairman Phil Hartke said his board doesn't plan to raise entry fees or grandstand event prices for this year. But Hartke added that it didn't seem fair that fair funding was even on the list of proposed cuts. Effingham County paid out $211,000 in premiums last year, but received around $60,000 in state reimbursement.

Hartke cited a recent study commissioned by the Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs as justification for his position. That study, which came out at the beginning of this year, noted that the state paid about $5.1 million to county fairs statewide.

"But they got a $90 million return on their investment," he said. "All the county fairs are social centers for that week and create a lot of economic activity through meals, lodging and shopping."

Hartke fears that many of the state's smaller county fairs won't be able to absorb any more cuts, adding that the Effingham County Fair might be able to stay open because it has become such a popular attraction.

"There's a chance for us because we draw such a big crowd," he said. He added, however, that it is likely that grandstand event prices and entry fees could be increased as early as next year, IF Rauner makes good on his vow and fair funding is cut.

But Hartke is optimistic that the finalized budget will include fair funding.

"I really believe after the budget is finalized that we will see that they (state officials) did not think cutting fair premiums was a good idea," he said.

Marcia Craig isn't nearly that optimistic. Craig, the longtime secretary-treasurer of the Clay County Fair in Flora, said the specter of additional budget cuts has become so dire that the fair won't have junior or open livestock shows during its July 16-23 run. The annual 4-H shows are operated through University of Illinois Extension.

"We're all nervous," she said.

Unlike Hartke, Craig doesn't believe state legislators will buck Rauner on the fair premium issue.

"They are just piddling," she said. "They're not even addressing the issue. And I don't think this governor is kidding."

Craig said the Clay County Fair normally pays about $70,000 in premiums, with about 30 percent of that coming from the state. That 30 percent figure, which has been in place the last several years, is a far cry from the 50 to 60 percent state reimbursement level of old.

Craig said the fair will go on this year, but she doesn't see much hope for its long-term future.

"Next year will be the telltale year," she said. "If we don't have those livestock shows again next year, we will lose our base (premium funding level)."

That base that the state pays for premiums is drawn off the better of any two-year span.

In the long term, Craig doesn't think it's going to matter.

"This fair will be gone before I die," said the 67-year-old Craig. "The trickle-down effect from that would be huge. It would affect feed, trailer sales and all sorts of other things. Restaurants in Flora get more customers during fair week than any other time of the year."

Craig said the public might not notice the lack of livestock shows at her fair, but she added that a long-term absence of those shows will affect the number of young people who choose to show livestock, as well as livestock sales.

"If the kids can't make money, they won't show as many livestock," she said.

Bill Grimes can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 132, at bill.grimes@effinghamdailynews.com, or on Twitter @EDNBGrimes.

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