Price increases, other changes coming to Walworth County Fair

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Catherine W. Idzerda | March 2, 2016

ELKHORN—To survive, the Walworth County Fairgrounds will have to make some changes to the way it operates, according to a consultant's report.

The Walworth County Agricultural Society issued a three-page news release Tuesday outlining the changes, including price increases, designed to keep the fair and the fairgrounds operating.

“Consultants stated that no business can sustain continued annual losses and have advised the board if the fairgrounds are to survive, the trend has to change quickly,” according to the news release written by fair manager Larry Gaffey.

In 2015, the fairgrounds lost $6,700, and that was its best year in six years, Gaffey wrote.

The problem is simple: Expenses for the fairgrounds have increased. Insurance costs are now more than $120,000 and utilities costs are more than $130,000.

The cost of entertainment has gone up more rapidly than anything else. Famous entertainers that used to cost $25,000—and do two shows a night—now are out of reach for most fairs.

Because the fair is considered an economic asset, the Walworth County Board agreed to pay for a $60,000 study to look for ways for the fair organization to become self-sustaining.

A 2009 UW-Whitewater study showed the fair contributed more than $7 million to the local economy. That includes money spent at the fair and for sales at hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

The fair also creates 116.6 full-time jobs.

The changes are being announced now to keep members of the Walworth County Agricultural Society up to date. The changes were approved by the nine-member board of the society. The board is elected every year.

“Our members are very interested in what happens at the fairgrounds,” Gaffey said. “They're very invested in the fair. Their family histories are invested at the fair. It's important to reach out to people and let them know what's going on.”

Fair changes will include:

-- New sponsors.

-- Rent increases for food and commercial vendors.

-- Ticket price increases. Senior citizen tickets will be $8; tickets for children 5-12 will go from $4 to $5. A variety of discount deals will still be available.

-- Season pass price increases. Adult season passes will remain $25 but will have to be purchased in advance. After Aug. 5, an adult season pass will cost $40. Junior season passes will go from $10 to $15.

-- Different parking options. Free parking will continue to be available, but the parking spaces near the main gate will be $5.

-- Price increases for evening entertainment. In the past, ticket holders could get grandstand seating for free. Reserved seating cost between $20 and $40. Grandstand seating will be $5.

-- An increase in entry fees for open class livestock shows from $1 to $5. At the same time, the prize money will increase. “Open” shows mean anyone--children or adults--can compete.

-- A new ticket scanning system designed to stop the copying or double use of tickets.
The changes come at a time when the Rock County 4-H Fair is looking at ways to raise more revenue. The Rock County Fair Board is looking at a variety of options and might study selling beer on the fairgrounds.

Beer sales are not being considered at the Walworth County Fair because the board is opposed to it, Gaffey said.

Three members of the nine-member board are changed every year. Gaffey didn't want to speak for future board members but said he didn't imagine beer sales would happen anytime soon.

The board is adding additional events at the fairgrounds during the year, including a rib fest in July.

“We'll be selling beer at that,” he said.

The board also is planning rodeo dances after two upcoming rodeos.

Many of Wisconsin's 72 counties own their fairgrounds. In Walworth County, the fairgrounds are privately owned and operated by the Walworth County Agricultural Society, a nonprofit organization that is overseen by a volunteer board of directors.

In Rock County, the fairgrounds are county-owned and are supported by building rentals, cell tower lease payments and sales tax revenue.

The Walworth County Fair is the biggest event of the year on the grounds. During the rest of the year, single-day and weekend events include demolition derbies, car shows, flea markets, tractor pulls and camping get-togethers.

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