- Associated Press - Friday, February 13, 2015

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - The more than 100 Illinois county fairs generated an estimated $170 million in spending last year but continue to see a decline in state funds that reimburse vital costs, according to a University of Illinois economic impact study.

The study, announced Friday, found spending at the fairs totaled about $170 million in 2014. About $90 million of spending occurred at the events while the rest was in the community surrounding the fairgrounds.

The findings paint a positive picture of the economic benefit the fairs bring the state, despite a decline in the number of farms in rural Illinois counties for decades. County fair advocates hope the study attracts the attention of state leaders to increase funding to county fairs.

“Over the last several years, we have received tremendous cuts and, hopefully, we’ll be able to stop that bleeding and realize the impact we’re still having with county fairs throughout the state,” said Bill Jennings, Richland County Fair board president.

The study looked at the economic impact of county fairs across the state, said Alex Norr, a graduate assistant at the University of Illinois’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning who conducted the study in partnership with the nonprofit Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs.

The findings showed about $80 million of the $170 million in spending went toward food, transportation costs, retail, lodging and services outside the fairgrounds, Norr said. That local spending supports about 1,000 jobs outside the fairs across the state.

The number of attendees at county fairs in 2013 varied from 500 to 195,000, according to the study.

One county fair advocate said those attendance figures have held steady over the years. Financial mismanagement forced Macon County’s fair to shut down in 2014, but nearly all of the rest of Illinois counties have an annual fair.

“Because of these numbers, we can see that county fairs act as an economic engine for these communities,” Norr said. He said this is especially true in rural communities that lack other significant economic activity.

The state is reimbursing some county fairs at just 20 percent of what they are paying for fairground costs, Jennings said.

State funds to cover competition prizes declined from $2.1 million in fiscal year 2006 to about $1.8 million for the 2015 fiscal year, according to data from the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Between the same years, funding for rehabilitation of fairgrounds dropped from $2.5 million to about $1.3 million, a decrease of about 48 percent.

County fair advocates are waiting to hear what Gov. Bruce Rauner will say in his upcoming budget address on Feb. 18, but it’s unlikely the county fairs are being seen as a high priority for increased funding. Illinois faces a financial crisis and lawmakers are bracing for Rauner to announce spending cuts in the budget.

Margaret Vaughn, government affairs director for the Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs, said she hopes announcing the study findings will draw attention to the economic benefit county fairs bring.

Other challenges identified in the study were difficulty staying relevant to younger people and declining interest in agriculture.

“People don’t realize that Illinois is primarily an agriculture state,” Vaughn said.




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