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Daily Journal
     April 8, 2020      #64-99 KDJ

Kankakee, Iroquois county fair officials hopeful

Daily Journal staff report

The social distancing guidelines that led Illinois county fairs to cancel off-season events on their grounds through the end of April is one part of a financial impact double-whammy, a trade official said.

Many local fairs use revenue from off-season events and activities to “pay the bills,” said Ken Tyrrell, president of the state’s Association of Agricultural Fairs.

Before the stay-at-home order was in place, guidelines from Gov. JB Pritzker’s office regulating the number of people allowed to congregate shrank from 1,000 to 50 to, finally, 10. County fairs canceled expositions, contests and other events back when that number was 250.

Debbie Krones, competitive exhibits coordinator for the Iroquois County Fair, said organizers are hopeful they will be able to host the fair this year, but they are holding off on major spending items until the state gives official word on the status of summer events.

The Iroquois County fair is scheduled for July 15 to 20.

“We are moving slow with what we’re doing and waiting to see how things play out,” she said. “We still have some time right now.”

Though July is still months away, cancellations of springtime camping groups and 4-H events at the fairgrounds means funding for the summer fair will be limited.

That’s not the only financial concern on fair organizers’ minds.

Krones said that if the fair has to be canceled, many participants will have wasted time and money on their projects, and local businesses that participate as vendors will also be out of luck.

“There’s a lot that goes into it behind the scenes,” she said. “If we didn’t have a fair, people have gone out and purchased and got their animals, and they probably are going to be sitting on a heavy loss because there won’t be a livestock sale.”

Krones added that rescheduling the fair for later in the season would not be a likely possibility.

In Kankakee County, Fair Manager Tammy Focken said this year’s fair will go on as planned unless the Illinois Department of Agriculture cancels it or if restrictions on public gatherings are still in place through the summer.

This year’s Kankakee County Fair is scheduled for July 29 through Aug. 2.

Though revenue from fair ground rentals will undoubtedly be limited this year, organizers are planning for the annual fair to still take place.

“Of course our business has been affected,” Focken said. “We host wedding receptions and trade shows of all kinds. All of those events have had to be canceled and/or rescheduled.”

The other problem, Tyrrell said, is a delay in reimbursements from the comptroller’s office for costs incurred last year. Under statute, the state is responsible for paying county fairs 66.67 percent of what organizers spent on agricultural premiums. That includes activities related to horticulture, poultry, livestock, horse races and rodeos.

County fairs in Illinois begin hosting their main events in June. If the novel coronavirus pandemic continues into the summer, forcing fairs to begin cancelling, Tyrrell said “it would be devastating.”

If a fair is canceled, expected revenue needed to pay laborers to maintain the grounds is lost, for example. Marla Calico, president of the International Association of Fairs & Expositions, added they additionally would lose vendor deposits and presale ticket money.

“Many downstate fairs struggle getting along as it is. They don’t have money put away or deep pockets. All of them struggle,” Tyrrell said. “Any time you lose revenue, it’s going to affect the fair.”

According to IAFE data, most county fairs across the country are scheduled for July, but events largely begin in June, extend strongly into August and wind down in September.

Member county fairs told Calico “they are taking a wait-and-see attitude,” choosing not to close unless forced to do so by public health authorities because “many times, they are the single largest economic driver in the community.”

She said county fair cancellations would cause “an entire ripple effect.”

“It’s not just the funds that not-for-profit organizations may gain and do good within the community when they give out scholarships to young people,” Calico said. “It’s the small businesses all around them — the gas station benefits, the hotels benefit, the cafes and restaurants benefit.”

According to a study commissioned by the IAFE, fairs in the U.S. are estimated to generate $4.67 billion in economic activity annually. A survey of the association’s members found that number is already down $66 million due to 320 fairs forced to shut down 10,578 events thus far this year.

State fair update

Events at the Illinois State Fairgrounds have been canceled through April.

While Kevin Gordon, Illinois State Fair manager, said in a written statement that will have a financial impact, “our priority, first and foremost, is the health and safety of those individuals holding, and attending these events, along with our department support staff.

He added the Coliseum’s renovation and reopening means more events than typical over the past few years had been scheduled and subsequently called off.

“Our staff is working diligently to reschedule any shows that have been canceled by this temporary closure,” Gordon said in the statement. “Once we get through this uncertainty that we are all facing, we are anticipating another great spring and summer of events on the Illinois State Fairgrounds.”

Major impact

According to a study commissioned by the IAFE, fairs in the U.S. are estimated to generate $4.67 billion in economic activity annually. A survey of the association’s members found that number is already down $66 million due to 320 fairs forced to shut down 10,578 events thus far this year.

Capitol News Illinois contributed to this report.

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