Where does Janesville fit into fairgrounds discussion?

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Gina Duwe
Wednesday, September 11, 2013

JANESVILLE--Janesville and Rock County leaders don't seem to value the benefits of the Rock County 4-H Fair enough to keep it in Janesville, fair board members said.

In his six years on the fair board, Craig O'Leary said at a meeting Monday he hasn't “heard a peep” from Janesville.

“Never once, other than the fire department, has anyone from the city of Janesville came and had some type of relationship about the economic benefit that this fair provides the city,” he said.

After Florida Georgia Line's show at the fair this year, fast food places were sold out, he said, and hotels are booked solid during fair week.

Janesville's acting City Manager Jay Winzenz said the city sees the value in the fairgrounds and “definitely see it as an amenity we would like to continue to have in Janesville.” 

Winzenz and City Council President Kathy Voskuil said they would like the city to join the discussion with the fair and county boards as talk of moving to Evansville continues. While the county explored moving the fair during the past decade, Winzenz wasn't sure anybody ever approached the city, either, to talk about the need or desire for a location in the city.

He admitted: “We certainly could have approached them, as well.”

“I think it's really important we do everything we can to keep the fair in the city of Janesville,” Voskuil said. “I think that we haven't taken it for granted. I think the question is, how can we work together to keep the fair in Janesville and maximize the benefits for the residents of Janesville as well as all the visitors within Rock County when they come to Janesville?”

The 18.5-acre, landlocked fairgrounds is owned by the county and sit in the middle of the city. The Rock County Fair Board runs the fair, but the county rents out the fairgrounds for auctions, car shows, craft sales and weddings nearly every weekend of the year.


The Rock County 4-H Fair this year brought an estimated $10.32 million to the area through food, gas, lodging and other sales, according to an economic impact study by the Janesville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The study uses a formula based on 80 percent of the fair attendees being Rock County residents, Executive Director Christine Rebout said. That ratio would be different for the fair's first night, which featured Florida Georgia Line and record attendance, but Rebout said they were looking for believable numbers.

The formula includes gate admission, lunch, dinner and a snack based on fair vendor prices, games/rides, a retail purchase such as a cowboy hat and gas/lodging for the non-Rock County residents. The result was $10.32 million.

The potential move of the fair to Evansville is an issue Forward Janesville is following but hasn't yet discussed, said Dan Cunningham, vice president of Forward Janesville government relations.

“The fair definitely has a strong economic impact in Janesville, and we like things like that, so it's an issue we'll be taking a look,” he said.

A big factor is the year-round use of the fairgrounds, which also is home to the Blackhawk Curling Club.


Fair board member Dean Peterson on Monday night was critical of the county board for not playing a bigger role in helping find a larger location for the fair. He would love to see the fair stay in Janesville, but because of a lack of county leadership, he probably would vote for the Evansville site, he said.

Rock County Board Chairman Russ Podzilni said he was "a little uncomfortable" with those words, recalling previous attempts at relocating the fair as well as a county study and survey.

“The leadership of the county board has not been sitting idly,” he said.

Over the past decade, the county rejected multiple proposals to move the fairgrounds. One would have put the fairgrounds at highways 14 and 51. Another would have put it along I-90/39 south of Janesville in a “land swap” deal for county farmland and cash.

The I-90 property wasn't big enough, Podzilni said, and the county property is “very valuable” farmland.

Janesville still would have benefited from those locations, both just outside city limits, Winzenz said. Moving the fair to Evansville changes the discussion for Janesville officials, he said.

“Janesville would no longer be in close proximity to the fairgrounds, and likely people would be leaving this area to go to that area,” he said. “That would certainly be a negative for Janesville.” 

Often cited has been a county-commissioned 2004 study by Hurtado Consulting, which predicted the fair would face falling attendance and increasing decay if it continued at its Janesville site. The study recommended spending $6 million to renovate the site or $20 million to move it.

“We had been looking, but when you get down to where the rubber hits the road, where does the county get $20 to $22 million? It just plain isn't there,” Podzilni said.

After the fair board makes a recommendation about the fair, Podzilni would put the item on an agenda for a county board discussion. He said he knows, however, the board won't jump in and quickly agree to move to the “far-most corner of the county.”


Southern Wisconsin Agricultural Group is hoping to build a regional agricultural events and education center on more than 200 acres it owns in Evansville and has invited the fair board to move the fair there.

Feedback on the idea started Monday night when the Rock County Board Agriculture and Extension Committee sought opinions from the fair board and fair association members about a move.

Keeping the fair in a central location in the county was a top concern voiced Monday night, but O'Leary said no other community has stepped forward to offer a new site.

“Has Clinton stepped forward with a group of businessmen and said, 'We've got 200 acres … ?' Has Milton? Has Orfordville? No one. At least Evansville businessmen have decided to offer this as a fairgrounds,” he said. “It's a great first step.”

Winzenz said he thinks Janesville needs to understand the needs of the fair board, such as land and space.

“It would be a starting point for us,” he said. “Then we can start taking a look at potential locations that might be able to accommodate their needs.”

Voskuil said it's “exceptionally important” to keep the fair in Janesville.

“Being in the center of Janesville, I think it's important the city of Janesville understands the goals of the county as it relates to the fair. How can we partner and collaborate in the fair and keep the fair in Janesville?” she said.


The fair lost money the last few years until this year's combination of nice weather and Billboard-topping acts led to a single-day attendance record. The fair made about $75,000 this year, fair board President Rob McConnell said.

Fair attendance this year topped 102,700 and covered losses from last year, when attendance was about 77,500, he said. The fair board spent $243,000 on entertainment this year, he said.

“We had to have a big year like this because … we're losing money every year, losing attendance,” he said at Monday's meeting. “Our entertainment committee did a fantastic job bringing it back up, but it created problems.” 

Tuesday's one-day record attendance of 30,667 caused crowd problems at the gates and grandstand, traffic issues, drinking at the concert and clogged toilets that left many fairgoers asking neighbors to open their bathrooms.

“Why? Because we didn't have the space,” McConnell said. “We can bring people into the community.”

It was clear Monday, however, not all members of the fair board and association agree on a move to Evansville. While many agree the fair needs more room, officials also heard from long-time fair families who spoke of the nostalgia and beauty of the grounds and feared a move to Evansville would decrease 4-H and FFA participation and attendance.

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