Walworth County Fair officials expect boost in attendance
But while businesses close their doors or restructure to maintain fiscal health, officials in Elkhorn are talking expansion and remain hopeful this year the economic pendulum begins to swing back in their direction.
Attendance at the 2009 fair was its lowest in nearly 30 years and down more than 21 percent from its all-time high in 2000.
Bob Handel, vice president of the Walworth County Fair Board, said he believes more than 160,000 people will attend this year’s fair, which would be the most since 2005.
“The economy is still struggling, and if anything it’s probably tougher than a year ago,” Handel said. “We’re kind of hanging on and not knowing what to expect.”
Handel admitted he’s concerned about the attendance, but they’ve been taking steps for years to maintain the fair’s quality.
More than 400 people from various organizations volunteer each year, allowing the fair to keep few people on salary, and Handel said they’ve upgraded the electrical and water systems to lower utility costs.
To ensure the future development of the fairgrounds, the Walworth County Agricultural Society in 2001 created a foundation to oversee an endowment fund to grow the fair and its facilities. It has led the fair’s fundraising efforts and maintains about $265,000 in assets, said Duane “Skip” Katzman, the foundation’s president.
“It is difficult right now, and I think you talk with any fundraising group and people aren’t quite as loose with their pocketbooks,” Katzman said.
Ideally, the foundation would control about $500,000 in assets to fund new projects, he added.
Expansion is a difficult concept for most organizations, but the Walworth County Fair has been vital to the local economy, making it a necessary investment, Handel said.
An economic impact study released earlier this year showed more than $6.3 million flows through Walworth County because of the fair. Handel estimated about 80 percent of that comes directly from the six-day county fair.
Katzman said the fair owns about 100 acres of land, and has enough space for development. They’ve discussed a youth building and expanding administrative offices, which Katzman said are too small.
“Down the road, I think we’re going to have some things happen that the foundation has worked very hard on,” Handel said. “There are some people out there that will eventually make a major gift, and if that happens, I don’t know when, but that will allow us (to expand).”
First, fair officials are focused on emerging from the recession.
Handel has discussed attendance with other fair officials around the state to try and predict what’s to come this week. They said turnouts this year aren’t much different from the year before.
But the Wisconsin State Fair this year had a 5 percent increase in attendance, leaving Handel hopeful Wisconsin’s largest county fair will follow the same course.
“We kind of hoped it was probably due to the economy, so we felt that if we’re able to hold (attendance) reasonably close to the previous year, we’ll be pretty happy with the results.”