There is a well-worn idiom that states, “You get what you pay for.” Nearly every year, a smattering of local residents lose grasp of that concept as they complain about admission prices for the Missouri State Fair.
A letter to the editor published in last weekend’s edition of the Democrat bemoaned the fair’s $10 daily admission fee. Melinda Von Morrison wrote: “Our fair needs to have free gate admission like many other fairs around … as well as other states. I’m sure this upsets many others here in our city, but I guess I’m the only one who had guts enough to write about it.”
“There is just no conceivable way to do something like that at a facility of this size, to have no revenue and make the operation work,” said Mark Wolfe, director of the Missouri State Fair.
Wolfe noted that the fair is a $4.5 million-a-year operation that, starting three years ago, receives no general revenue from the Legislature. Funds for maintenance of the facility were wiped out as a part of state budget tightening in 2009. The fair currently gets some “side funding” from the state’s Wine and Grape Tax (the Agriculture Protection Fund) through the Department of Agriculture. But those funds are part of a typical fiscal bait-and-switch pulled by politicians, where a tax is created to shore up something popular then general revenue to that program or agency is quietly cut at about the same level.
“(The Agriculture Protection Fund) was supposed to bolster the Department of Ag’s budget – considering it’s the largest industry in the state – and basically it got traded out and they took general revenue away from the Department of Ag and replaced it with the Wine and Grape Tax funds,” Wolfe said. “In that process, the state fair was removed from the general revenue disbursement.”
The Ag Protection Fund provides the state fair with less than $500,000 a year; the fair’s payroll for the month of August, when more than 1,000 people are employed to handle the event’s 11-day schedule, runs from $500,000 to $600,000. Its electricity bill for August last year was $140,000.
“So for us to ‘give it all away,’ we can do that, but then you won’t have a fair,” Wolfe said. “There won’t be any entertainment, there would only be what people would be willing to do for free. The bathrooms would be a mess and there would be trash everywhere and the place wouldn’t be mowed. There has to be some type of revenue back to maintain the facility.”
For critics pointing to Pepsi Grandstand concerts, the carnival and vendor fees and claiming those are cash cows for the state fair, understand that big-name performers come with big-time price tags that must be paid no matter how many tickets are sold; the carnival pays a fee for the ability to operate during the fair, as do vendors, but again with no money coming from the state, those fees help with strictly basic maintenance of the facility.
People also must keep in mind that the state fairgrounds is a year-round operation that serves a vital role in the economic vitality of our community. With no revenue base for the fairgrounds, the campground, Mathewson Exhibition Center and other facilities would not be available to bring in the Red Power Roundup group, the BMW Motorcycle riders, Airstream caravan, Stud Ram Show and other well-moneyed visitors.
The contention that other county and state fairs provide free admission also is off base. Wolfe noted that, for example, the Washington Town and Country Fair near St. Louis and the Ozark Empire Fair both charge admission.
“No state fairs are free,” Wolfe added. “There may be smaller county fairs that are free, but it’s not a big operation, maybe 15 or 20 acres, a couple of buildings and they do their livestock shows and that’s kind of it.”
Last year, Wolfe and his wife attended the Minnesota State Fair, which is about the same physical size as the Missouri State Fair but draws bigger crowds due in part to its location in a more populated area. Admission fees are $13 per person and they paid $25 for parking for one day. That’s about $50 for a couple, compared with $20 for a couple at the Missouri State Fair ($10 per person admission, loads of free parking on site).
“We are still by far one of the cheapest fairs in the nation. I think our state fair is one of the most economical you can go to,” Wolfe said.
Over his 11 years with the Missouri State Fair, the fair has never received enough funding from Legislature to cover payroll for the month of August. But Wolfe understands economic reality.
“The state fair is pretty much expected to carry its own weight, financially,” he said. “I’m certainly not ignorant to the fact that the state fair is not critical to the operation of the state, when you are talking about limited dollars to go around. … From the historical aspect and the fact that it is the largest showcase and promotion of agriculture in the state of Missouri every year, it’s still a pretty important facility.”
Bob Satnan is the communications director for Sedalia School District 200.