The Thurston County Fair’s future is in question amid low attendance this summer and an exhausted reserve fund.
In the best-case scenario, the fair could finish the year in the black with $1,800 to carry over, according to Cliff Moore, county director of Resource Stewardship.
The fair operates on $30,000 a month during non-fair months to cover basic cost including payroll and utilities.
“We are in a problem,” Moore told county commissioners during a work session Thursday morning. “The deeper fundamental problem is the model we have to run the fair isn’t working.”
Revenue from the five days of fair makes up 35 percent of the overall budget. The rest of the fund consists of revenue from storage fees, facility rentals and special events, and some state money.
Revenue began to decline and fluctuate in 2008 with the decline in the economy, and then the county cut its annual contribution from the general fund.
The largest county contribution was $144,000, in 2007, which fell to $113,000 in 2008 at the start of the recession before being cut completely in 2009, Moore said.
The county did provide $58,000 in 2011 to help the fair finish out the year.
Moore and other fair representatives approached the council with four options: the county provides an annual contribution, the county leases the fairgrounds to a private entity, the fair is closed and the fairgrounds are sold, or the fair is closed and facility rental and storage are turned over from Resource Stewardship to the Public Works, Recreation or Central Services departments.
All three commissioners agreed closing the fair is far from their minds.
“I don’t think anybody is ready to give up on the fair,” said Commissioner Cathy Wolfe.
It will take between $80,000 and $110,000 for the fair to survive 2013, Moore said. Without it, the fair fund is expected to be almost $110,000 in the red by the end of next year.
The fair had fewer than 30,000 attendees this year, putting revenue $20,000 short of projections.
Moore said fair staffers cut operating costs from $158,000 in 2008 to $96,000 this year and pared total salaries from $190,000 to $156,000 by cutting one position and demoting two positions from full time to three-quarters time.
One full-time and two three-quarter-time employees work at the fair office, Moore said.
“We have done our best work to really manage the budget and manage expenses well,” he said. “The fair has done a great job bringing in new activities to generate new revenue streams.”
The cut in money from the county, coupled with an increase of operational costs from $42,000 to a projected $124,000 in 2013, created ongoing challenges.
Operational costs such as transportation and utilities increased when the commissioners created a 20-year building-maintenance fund about two years ago. The fund requires an annual contribution of $54,000 from the fair fund.
Robin Campbell, budget and fiscal manager, suggested the commissioners bring up the issue as a fourth-quarter budget amendment.
Campbell suggested the commissioners transfer between $40,000 and $50,000 to the fair fund.
“I am worried about ending in the black in 2012, and I’m also looking at the fund balance,” Campbell said.
The extra funding would keep the fair budget in the black and provide a reserve for the start of 2013. The fair’s reserve funds are tapped out.
The commissioners said they plan to discuss the fair’s finances, as well as the possibility of restoring some funding, during the upcoming 2013 budget meetings.
“It is important because our neighboring county in Mason County already has (given up on the fair),” said Commissioner Karen Valenzuela. “Those are their animals we are looking at and judging for prizes.”
The commissioners are planning a brainstorming session at the fairgrounds to discuss other revenue options, including beer and wine gardens and outdoor entertainment.
Moore said the Thurston County Fair is the only one in the area without a venue for concerts.
“I want to see some plans,” said Commissioner Sandra Romero. “Brainstorming is really good for us to do with some new energy.”