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Illinois county fairs wither as state lessens financial aid

In Macon County, Ill., officials scaled back the county fair, an example of the vulnerable state of a pastoral institution. Elizabeth Campbell/Bloomberg news

DECATUR, Ill. — The grandstands sat empty on what should have been the Macon County Fair’s opening night. Instead of a stage with pageant contestants in sparkling gowns, the central Illinois arena held only 20 truckloads of dirt spread out for a makeshift go-kart track.

The 158-year-old fair is broke.

Organizers canceled the event in favor of a scaled-down festival this year as the board struggled to pay about $300,000 of debt. The fair’s demise in the county about 180 miles south of Chicago shows the vulnerability of a pastoral institution. The number of US farms has dropped six straight years, and with them demand for entertainments that convened growers who spend much of the year in their fields.


With state budgets under pressure and industrial agriculture helping to drain the countryside’s population, urban legislators face tough choices. Illinois cut support for county fairs by 38 percent as attendance fell by almost a third from 2000 to 2013.

The fairs are all hurting because the state funding is down, said Don Collins as he walked through the muddy Macon County fairgrounds on the festival’s opening night in June. The 82-year-old retired sprinkler fitter volunteers on the grounds in the town of Decatur, doing everything from mowing the lawn to fixing pipes. ‘‘Fairs have to have something else going to make the money.’’

The land of Lincoln isn’t an outlier, said Paul Lasley, an Iowa State University sociologist who has studied rural communities for 33 years. Declining rural populations have created more urbanized states, taking a toll on the tradition, he said.

Rural and small-town America face a ‘‘growing demographic challenge,’’ according to a November 2013 report by the US Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service. Macon County has not been spared. Its population fell 1.3 percent from April 2010 to July 2013, while the state’s grew 0.4 percent.


State fairs have traditionally had more support, said Lasley. They can afford to draw in big entertainment such as Aretha Franklin at the Wisconsin State Fair and rapper Pitbull at the New York State Fair this year.

At the county level, however, Illinois’s struggles are replicated across the nation, said Dominic Vivona Jr., a controller at Amusements of America, a carnival operator based in Florence, S.C., that serves 30 to 40 fairs a year.

‘‘It’s definitely not atypical,’’ said Vivona, 46, whose family started the traveling amusement park in the 1930s and bought the Ferris wheel from the 1939 World’s Fair. ‘‘It’s a common occurrence throughout the country.’’

Illinois fairs have been dealt a double blow because of deteriorating state finances. Lawmakers passed a budget May 31 with a $2 billion hole. Illinois has $100 billion of unpaid benefit obligations, and its credit rating is A3 from Moody’s Investors Service, four levels above junk. It is the lowest- rated state.

Funding for Illinois’s 104 county fairs fell to $5.07 million last year from $8.16 million in 2000, said Jeff Squibb, spokesman for the state Agriculture Department. Even at the Macon County fairgrounds, some saw the logic.

‘‘I don’t think our state should try to support anything right now because of our financial situation,’’ fairgoer Jeanie Burtschi said in an interview near funnel cake stands.

The fair’s main income source is bingo, four nights a week on the grounds. Borrowing to make repairs on the 50-acre facility and ‘‘overspending in other areas’’ led to its debt, said Teresa Wilson, 41, who now is board treasurer.


Now, the fair’s ceiling is caving in — literally. A massive water leak in the office the day before the June 10 start of the festival collapsed it, Wilson said.

The fest started this year in a shrunken version with $1-a-ride carnival. Rain and storms didn’t help. Barns usually full of animal entries were vacant.

Because the fair still owed 2013 exhibitors about $36,680 in prizes, the state did not provide funds, Wilson said. There were no livestock competitions or harness races, and the marquee tractor pull, which awards more than $20,000 in prizes, was replaced by go-kart racing.

Taken as a whole, fairs and expositions are doing well, said Marla Calico, chief operating officer of the Springfield, Mo.-based International Association of Fairs and Expositions.

About two-thirds or more of the IAFE’s member fairs reported steady or higher attendance the last couple of years, she said.