MLC Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee: Future of state fairs is focus of Chicago meeting

August 21, 2019

Butter sculptures, deep-fried foods and carnival rides might be what you think of when you think of fairs (and ice cream cones and corn dogs indeed originated at state fairs), but there is much more to them than food and rides.

Twenty-four states have an “official” state fair, including every one in the Midwest, but how they’re funded and managed varies. Michigan and Minnesota are the only Midwestern states that do not provide appropriations for their fairs, but other states don’t always meet their annual financial commitments.

Kansas committed $300,000 in general appropriations a year, but rarely provided that amount. In 2018, the Legislature came up with a fix: SB 415, overwhelmingly approved by lawmakers, lets the fair retain 83 percent of the sales-tax revenue generated on the fairgrounds, with that money then being put into a capital improvements fund.

Marla Calico, president of the International Association of Fairs & Expositions, told attendees at the 2019 Midwestern Legislative Conference Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee meeting that state fairs around the country are struggling with funding, particularly the need to make capital improvements.

In Kansas, for example, the State Fair is challenged by an aging infrastructure and old, single-purpose buildings. “[They] need to be brought up to code and provide things like climate control that attendees today expect,” Kansas Sen. Carolyn McGinn said.

In addition to money from their general funds, states sometimes dedicate other sources of revenue to support state fairs — for example, unclaimed property in Illinois and a portion of gambling revenue in Indiana. State-issued bonds are used in Indiana, Kansas, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The Iowa State Fair gets some money from a state infrastructure fund, and counties and municipalities contribute to the state fairs in Nebraska and North Dakota.

At the July committee meeting, legislators noted the importance of state fairs for youth development and for educating an increasingly urban audience — only about 19 percent of the U.S. population is rural.

“The fairs showcase an important part of our economy that many people today don’t understand,” McGinn said.

Most state fairs operate agricultural education programs that meet school curriculum guidelines, thus helping attendees learn the story of modern agriculture.

Across the Midwest, too, thousands of young people learn critical life skills through raising and showing livestock and crops at a fair. Fairgrounds are also used year-round for other activities, helping to spread maintenance costs. In 2017, for example, Indiana’s fairgrounds hosted 338 additional events.

Attendance at most fairs continues to rise, and that means more “people every year will be learning about where their food comes from, as well as building family memories,” said Illinois Rep. Norine Hammond, a co-chair of the MLC committee.