California fairgrounds facing a crisis: Action is needed now

Our magazine is a major supporter of fairs and fairgrounds in rural areas, including Placer County and Nevada County, because they have a long tradition of celebrating local agricultural bounties dating back to the Civil War — in food, wine and art. The tradition continues to this day, with animals, ag education, rides and attractions, concerts and – of course – fair food.

County fairgrounds and fairs showcase fresh, local food, and promote regional wine and beer tastings, as well as local arts and crafts. They are a catalyst to the boom in “homesteading” and the sustainable food movement.

The fairs also are an “economic engine” in rural areas. The projected sales tax income from the fair network topped $126 million in 2009 (The latest data available). Thousands of individuals are employed the state, county or a non-profit to oversee and operate fair activities. In addition, all 78 fairs serve as a platform for fundraising by local and regional nonprofits. An estimated more than $60 million was raised at or on fairgrounds in 2012, including more than $20 million in junior livestock sales alone, according to a report by the California Fairs Alliance.

FAIRGROUND OFFERED SHELTER FOR RIM FIRE

In emergencies, our magazine has noted how our foothill fairgrounds provide emergency shelter to travelers and locals — as we noted in the case of the the famed Mother Lode Fairgrounds in Sonora providing shelter during the Rim Fire in Yosemite, for example.

But there’s trouble on the horizon for our state fair network — and it is getting nowhere near the attention it deserves, in the media and in other public forums. So we’re going to shine a light on it here:

“After three years of eroded financial support from the state, California’s 78 fairs and 76 fairgrounds have reached the tipping point,” as a new report by the California Fairs Alliance (CFA) dubbed “California Fairs Infrastructure Crisis” observes. “If allowed to continue, we project the network’s ability to ensure public safety, support emergency services and generate revenue locally will be irreparably damaged.”

It continued: “This means that close to 30 percent of the state’s fairs are on the brink of total failure.”

HEARINGS LAST WEEK TO ADDRESS CRISIS

Last week, California state legislators held a hearing on California Fairs to address concerns that many fairs are struggling in light of minimal state support. Assembly member Susan Eggman (D-San Joaquin), the Committee Chair, said she wanted to address the issue.

We were glad to see bipartisan support between Eggman and Assembly members Brian Dahle (R-Lassen) and Frank Bigelow (R-Madera). Nevada County Fairground chief executive Sandy Woods is chair of the CFA and board member of the Western Fairs Association, its trade group parent. She also attended the hearings.

(As we’ve written before, the Nevada County Fairgrounds has been able to buck the trend of financial problems, thanks largely to its management and community support). But the issue looms large for other fairs and fairgrounds.

A representative from each of the seven California fair areas testified, as did representatives from the Amador County Fair, the Big Fresno Fair, the Division of Fairs & Expositions, California Fair Service Authority and California Fair Financing Authority.

“It was a very productive and positive day,” said Sandy Woods, California Fairs Alliance chair. “We had good turnout and members passionately testified about the problems facing the California fair network.”

“The Joint Fairs Committee members seem to understand the dire situation we are in and all in the room seemed willing to work together to find solutions.” (The group, including Sandy, is seen here petting “Sutter Brown,” Gov. Jerry Brown’s well-liked dog).

Some of the issues cited in the report include:

Public Safety: The network of California fairs has 76 fair facilities, known as fairgrounds, from Del Mar to Del Norte and Monterey to Mariposa. These properties are highly developed event centers used on a year-round basis. Absent an infusion of public support for infrastructure, the ability of each fair’s local management team to maintain public safety becomes in doubt.

Emergency Services: Many of the 76 fairgrounds are used for local and statewide emergency services including fire camps, cooling centers, and the evacuation of animals and humans, to name the few. The lack of funding for proper maintenance and upkeep jeopardizes this important emergency tool.

Revenue Generation: Public financing acts as a foundation for fairs, allowing them to generate significantly more revenue locally. Several fairs are already in the process of closing, condemning or restricting the use of their fairgrounds. This will limit their ability to generate revenue, reduce the state revenue stream.

HOW FUNDING HAS FALTERED

California has been providing some level of public financing for the development of fairs since 1859.

The legalization of betting on the outcome of horse races led to the creation of the Fairs and Expositions Fund, overseen by CDFA and their Division of Fairs & Expositions. The building of the network became a major trend in the post World War II era, with the state investing millions of the share of racing revenue into the development of a fair network.

The profitability of the state’s horse racing sector began to decline rapidly in the late 1990s. By 2009, total statewide handle had decreased significantly. This transition created a serious threat to the future of fair funding from horse racing.

Today, there is approximately $1 million generated annually from fair horse racing meets that provides the only funding for CDFA’s Division of Fairs. By 2016, 80 percent of these funds will expire.

NEXT STEPS

This is yet another step in a lengthy process to restore funding and reform regulatory obligations that began in 2011 with the 100 percent elimination of state funding, according to the California Fairs Alliance.

“We will continue to press for solutions and need members to understand this process is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Stephen Chambers, Western Fairs Association executive director. “As we continue to meet with legislative staff and key decision-makers, here in Sacramento, there are several things your fair can do to support our efforts.”

•If you attended the hearing, send a thank you letter including more info about your fair, to your area Senate and Assembly members (on Joint Fairs) and the chair.

•If you missed the hearing, send your apology, with more information about your fair, especially infrastructure related.

•Invite your local legislators to tour your fairgrounds.

•Make sure you invite your Senate and Assembly members to your 2014 fair. Encourage local partners to share the importance of the fair with local legislators.

(Painting of Nevada County Fairgrounds: Katie Wolf of Art Works Gallery in Grass Valley)

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