Officials hope shorter fair cuts costs

Officials hope shorter fair cuts costs
South Dakota's State Fair will shrink by three days next year and officials hope that means a 20 to 30 percent reduction in operation costs.

"The fair is one thing and we typically cover the costs of providing the fair that week," said Larry Gabriel, South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture. "What we don't do is cover the cost of operating the fair office for the other 51 weeks of the year."

The State Fair currently costs $2 million per year, Gabriel said. That includes bringing entertainment to the grandstand, maintaining the grounds, staffing the weeklong event and running the fair office throughout the year. The 2006 State Fair will start on Thursday, Aug. 31, and end on Labor Day, Sept. 4.

Admission to the fair will be free after 9 p.m., Fair Manager Susan Hayward said in a news release.

"Many people have commented that they want to come into the fair at night to ride the rides, have dinner with friends, or enjoy the beer garden," Hayward said. "We hope this will give fairgoers the ?old time' feeling and bring more people into the fair."

A shorter fair means less time spent by employees cleaning up, taking tickets and providing security for the event, Gabriel said.

He hopes the new five-day schedule will bring more people to the grounds.

"This is our way to make sure we do our best to have good attendance every day," Gabriel said. "We anticipate more attendance for a four-day fair than we did last year for an eight-day fair."

It also means livestock exhibitors will have more time to show their animals. 4-H livestock exhibitions have been running the first few days of the fair so participants would miss the least amount of school possible. In 2006 the livestock shows will begin at 8 a.m. on Thursday morning and end at 6 p.m. Monday evening.

The open class shows will run in the same time frame. The three and a half day show time was not working, Gabriel said.

"That's why people are supportive of this change," he said.

Mary Held's two sons, Austin and Aaron, take their 4-H sheep to the fair. Held, of rural Aurora, said the three-and-a-half day show schedule worked fine for them but not for people showing more than one kind of animal. She and her husband, Jeff, are in favor of the shorter fair.

"We've talked about this for years that it would be better to have five good days than eight or nine poor days," she said.

Vendors also are supportive of the shorter time frame, Gabriel said. Those people selling everything from needlepoint to farm machinery want to get to the fair, work hard and go home, he said.

"There's nothing vendors like less than sitting in a booth all day and having no one go by," Gabriel said.

Consolidating the 4-H events at the beginning of fair week meant that those children and their families left after the shows were over, Held said. That took away a lot of vendor business.

"I think it's something we needed if we want to keep the fair going financially, especially from the vendor standpoint. The middle of the week was a very slow time for them."

Gabriel and the state Legislature agreed three years ago that he would work to make the fair more self-sustaining, said Rep. Jim Putnam, R-Armour. Putnam is co-chair of the state's Appropriations Committee, which oversees state money. The committee will hear a budget report on the fair at its meeting Dec. 5 in Pierre. Gov. Mike Rounds will give his budget address on Dec. 6.

Buildings on the fairgrounds have to be maintained in order to avoid liability issues, he said. Many of them are older and it costs a great deal of money to winterize them, keep water from leaking in and make sure they are safe for people to use.

"Those are high cost items," Putnam said.

The fair also struggles with attendance. It is basically a youth event, but people don't necessarily make it their annual family trip as they might have in the past, Held said. There are more activities to lure them away.

"Doing it over the weekend at least they have the 4-H kids there and the grandparents and that's truly what keeps the fair going," Held said. "They really need to accommodate that group to keep it going. I think they're doing that."

Fair personnel are planning a pre-fair event on Wednesday that will allow people to enter the grounds admission-free, take in the carnival, food booths and possibly a grandstand event. And they are working to hold more events year-round, like the Dakota Territory Gun Show, which is scheduled for Dec. 3-4, Putnam said.

Fairs in surrounding states last typically from six to seven days, Gabriel said. In the past not much happened during the first day of the South Dakota State Fair. And the last day was an exodus, he said.

"We're going to have to work very hard to make those five days very full."

Legislators annually debate the cost to run the state fair, but Putnam doesn't anticipate anyone ever bringing legislation to close it.

"I want the fair to continue on just because it's a state fair," he said. "We just need to find some way to make it work with the 4-H, the agriculture, the machinery and if the folks want some shows."

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