The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 24, 2013

County fair deserves shot at survival

Why it matters: While the decision is tough, the board should focus on keeping the tradition alive rather than saving the location

The Mankato Free Press

---- — The Blue Earth County Fair, fighting for its survival after more than 150 years, has a tough decision to make. Faced with plummeting attendance, a running deficit and many promotions that have failed to breathe new life into this annual event, it may be faced with a critical decision: Move or die.

These are not easy decisions for people whose lives have personified grit and courage.

Their lifestyle is always finding a way to make it work; failure is not an option. But, to date, the fair has been running a deficit for several years.

The organization lost $2,472 in 2010, $11,410 in 2012 and $3,102 in 2013. The Fair Board no longer has any reserve funds.

Even with over 8,000 visitors during its 150th anniversary, the fair lost money and last year the organization would have gone out of business if not for a $30,000 loan. Attendance has dropped like an untethered rock from roughly 15,000 visitors per year just six years ago to barely 5,000 visitors this year.

Board member Matt Little said people do not want to drive 20 minutes outside of Mankato to visit the fair in Garden City.

And limited funds from small attendance has prevented them from offering more robust events.

Consequently, people end up believing there is nothing to do at the fair.

The Blue Earth County Agricultural Society, which runs the fair, earlier this year, split the Fair Board off into a non-profit named the Blue Earth County Fair Association. The Shady Oaks Campground, a society financial asset, was turned into its own business organization.

An option presented was to move the fair to Mankato by 2015 and finance the cost by selling the campgrounds, hoping to receive at least $250,000 with the sale and cover the remaining costs through grants and donations.

They have been looking into land around the Mankato Regional Airport as a possible site and there is hope that Blue Earth County would be interested in buying the site, though they have not yet created a formal proposal.

Early indications are some shareholders are loathe to move the county fair from its historic, agricultural home. An official shareholder vote on moving the event will be held in January.

But as an example of the frustration being felt in finding a long-term solution, Fair Board President Kelly Marks and Little said they will join other board members in resigning if their plan is voted down. This would leave the Fair Board with three or fewer members to run the event.

Despite all the problems facing the county fair, Marks and Little said they are still intensely optimistic they will be able to revive the fair after the move.

“I was in 4-H as a kid. It would absolutely break my heart if we couldn’t keep something like the fair running (in Blue Earth County),” said Marks.

And isn’t that the point? While location always carries a tradition and memories, the land itself is not why the fair exists.

The event was a chance to show off farming skills or homespun talents whether it was raising livestock, growing vegetables or making marmalade. It’s a time to celebrate the honesty and integrity of rural agricultural lifestyle; for kinship and friendship to be strengthened or rekindled; to show off our rural youth’s mastery of the agricultural lifestyle.

Fairs themselves are not a dying breed. One need only look toward the Steele County Fair to see a successful and vibrant event.

The location should be one that can draw people more easily whether close to Mankato or towards Lake Crystal or east to help celebrate this lifestyle. Moving the fair should be a business decision made to help keep the tradition alive.