Q&A: After hard times, ‘everybody’ wants to be part of fairThe State Fair continues to show growth and prosperity, just a few short years after intense statewide scrutiny put the fair in a bad light and potentially hindered its ability to grow, the fair manager told a Mitchell service club this week.
By: Korrie Wenzel, The Daily Republic
The State Fair continues to show growth and prosperity, just a few short years after intense statewide scrutiny put the fair in a bad light and potentially hindered its ability to grow, the fair manager told a Mitchell service club this week.
Jerome Hertel, of Huron, was the featured speaker Thursday at the Mitchell Rotary Club and said scrutiny was hindering the fair’s growth. He was backed up on that point by state Sen. Mike Vehle, who rose from the crowd to say he had grown “sick and tired of people putting down the fair.”
“It’s just like a restaurant,” the Republican from Mitchell said. “You hear a bad thing about a restaurant and then spread the word, and pretty soon nobody goes to that restaurant. I don’t care what it is — you have to talk positively about it. When people have a positive perspective, they’ll go.”
Said Hertel: “I don’t know if (the scrutiny) would have been our downfall, but it hurt us tremendously when people kept scrutinizing the fair and wondering whether it was viable or could stand on its own. I think the fair has proved that we are working well within our means and working toward self-sufficiency.”
Five years ago, the fair was being subsidized with $900,000 in public money. The fair’s economic struggles prompted some state lawmakers to suggest moving the fair from Huron or ending the annual late-summer tradition.
But it survived, under the promise that changes were being made — such as putting the fair under the umbrella of the state Department of Agriculture and shortening it in 2005 from eight days to five. Each year, the amount of state subsidy money has decreased and the fair today finds itself on more stable financial footing.
South Dakotans have confirmed their faith in the fair’s tradition, said Hertel, who took his current job in 2008. The fairgrounds’ campsites are always at capacity during the event’s five days and sponsors are becoming more generous because, as he said, “it seems that everybody wants to be part of something successful.”
Attendance has risen from 133,000 in 2006 to nearly 200,000 this year. Major revenue-generators also have risen, as have traditional events within the fair itself, such as the number of livestock exhibits. This year’s fair saw gains of 6.5 percent in gate revenue, 5 percent in camping revenue, 14.5 percent in carnival revenue and 7.5 percent in sponsorship revenue.
Correspondingly, the state’s infusion of subsidy cash has decreased, to $268,000.
With the old challenge of simply staying alive seemingly in the past, Hertel said new hurdles arise. For one, physical work on the fairgrounds buildings is a constant chore, and that’s one of his staff’s top challenges each year.
“We’ve been able to generate enough funds to keep us alive and sustain us,” he said. “But one of the biggest challenges is we have 90 buildings on the grounds and every one of them has a roof.”
Hertel said the fair does not have a capital improvement budget; all such expenses are paid from the fair’s operating income.
One improvement that was made in 2011 was to the stage area, which sits inside the oval of the State Fair Speedway race track. After a severe storm this summer destroyed a stage at the Indiana State Fair and killed several spectators, Hertel said South Dakota State Fair officials quickly decided the stage used in Huron needed to be replaced.
“We looked at our roof and our stage and determined it was not adequate and it’s something we needed to change,” he said. “So in two weeks’ time and just before the fair, we brought in a brandnew portable stage and roof that we rented.”
That cost the fair somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000, Hertel said, but was deemed necessary for the sake of public safety.
And looking ahead to next year?
“We are looking pretty good,” Hertel said. “We’re very excited about preparing for next year’s fair and have already begun doing some planning for it.”
Following are Hertel’s answers to a few of the questions asked of him during Thursday’s Rotary meeting, as well as during a follow-up call by The Daily Republic.
Q. Who owns the property and are you promoting the facility for uses at other times of the year?
A: “The majority of the buildings are owned by the state with a few exceptions. …
“We definitely push for offseason events. The Wheel Jam event we have brings in about 5,000 to 6,000 people for that weekend. We have an outdoor expo, a women’s expo, livestock shows, horse shows. … When we run into the winter months, we clean out the buildings and we store RVs and other vehicles. This year we have about 100 RVs and cars stored in there for the winter. We generate income that way.
“We also are promoting the fairgrounds for larger events, too. Just recently, we acquired the Red Power International Harvester national tractor convention. That’s expected to bring in about 25,000 to 30,000 people in the year 2014. They’ll camp, stay in hotels and campgrounds, have food vendors. It’s a very large convention and will be a huge bonus to our bottom line.
“Then, of course, we have the WISSOTA (car racing event), which we’ve had for three or four years now. There are 400-plus campers on the grounds for those four days and we rent our track out.”
Q. When figuring State Fair attendance, how do you count the people in campers? Do you count them just once?
A: “We count them every day. We get a count of all of the campers and how many people we think are camping in them. Lately, I have noticed there have been two or three families in one camper, so it’s probably a lot more people than what we give in the attendance.”
Q. You mentioned the fair generates about $400,000 in sales tax outside the fairgrounds. Does the City of Huron contribute anything financially or in-kind to the fair?
A: “They do. We get an annual allocation for marketing the fair (about $20,000 to $30,000 from the city) and inkind in addition to that. Two years ago, I figured what we got in in-kind services and the amount from the city and county amounted to over $100,000. So yes, they are very supportive.”
Q. The State Fair has taken a turn for the better in the past few years. Considering the economy and other factors, what do you attribute that to?
A: “For one thing, I think people have stopped scrutinizing the fair. And because of the success we have had in the past few years, we’re getting a lot more interest for sponsorships and things like that. That has helped tremendously. It seems that everybody wants to be part of something successful.
“Of course, we have also gotten a lot of support from our legislators in Pierre and also throughout the state of South Dakota there has been a lot of support for the fair.
“That, and I think the fair is just such a tradition. We have so many campers — there are 1,250 spots just on the grounds, then another 200 or 300 off the grounds. It is such a tradition, and that really helped through the tough times.
“Also, the State Fair came under the leadership of the state Department of Agriculture, and our finances were watched very closely there. We scrutinized very closely everything on the grounds and what money was spent on.”
Q. What are the attendance trends of fairs in other states?
A: “Looking at last year, it was all over the board. There were some that saw dramatic decreases and some that saw dramatic increases. But overall, I would say it’s down a little bit.”
Q. Do you see Mitchell’s summertime events — Dakotafest and the Corn Palace Festival — as competition to the State Fair?
A: “We are very pleased with the number of people and the support we receive from the Mitchell area. We get a lot of customers from the Mitchell area and we don’t feel we compete with the Corn Palace Festival and Dakotafest. We see it more as a complement to the State Fair. There are a lot of rural, ag people in this area and they support both venues and events.”
Chris Huber/Republic A view of the fairgrounds in Huron is seen from the top of the Ferris wheel in this photo from the opening day of the State Fair in September.