Fair attendees in August 2018 eat corn at the Walworth County Fair in Elkhorn.


A sharp decline in revenue last year has left the Walworth County Fair Board looking for solutions.

In 2018, the fair recorded $188,000 in losses after rain saturated the fairgrounds during the annual Walworth County Fair, causing attendance to shrink by 20,000.

The poor weather conditions spurred loses across the board, said Larry Gaffey, Walworth County Fairgrounds general manager. Profits from ATM machine withdraws were down, the fair had to cancel a headliner concert, tickets were refunded, and the fairgrounds had to be repaired.

Walworth County Fair Board members had to go back to the drawing board in the aftermath and search for increased revenue options to compensate for the losses, Gaffey said.

One suggestion—selling beer—was floated at the fair board’s annual meeting in December, and Gaffey said it has stirred up residents.

Selling beer has been pitched by many fairs in the state. The Rock County Board voted last April to allow alcohol sales at the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds amid declining revenue, although there are no plans to allow beer sales during the fair.

Fair Association Board President Randy Thompson told the Rock County Board in April that the Rock County 4-H Fair has maxed out its ticket prices, doesn’t charge for parking and doesn’t sell beer.

“Where most county fairs have a three-legged stool, we’re teetering on one,” Thompson said.

The Walworth County Fair Board took an advisory poll of Walworth County Agricultural Society members who attended the meeting in December. Society members elect the board, and between 60 and 70 of the 1,000 members attended the meeting, Gaffey said.

Most in attendance signaled that they did not support selling beer, Gaffey said. That essentially nixed the idea in Walworth County for now.

“Unlike a lot of politicians in the world, this board listens to its membership very closely,” Gaffey said.

Gaffey said the suggestion was clustered with about 25 other possible funding solutions addressing the revenue decline. He said no Walworth County Fair Board member wants to sell beer at the fairgrounds.

Among other solutions discussed were increasing ticket prices, charging for parking, spending less on entertainment and seeking more sponsorship, Gaffey said.

Gaffey said the board may try to grow Ribfest, which is an annual event on the fairgrounds in July that has doubled in size every year. If attendance doubles in 2019, Gaffey said, the fair would recover its shortfall from 2018.

Before last year, the fair had been mounting a significant financial upswing after five years of losses. The fair’s 2017 profits increased by 60 percent from 2016’s profits and reached its highest margin since 2004, netting $98,704.

Gaffey said the Walworth County Fair faces some financial challenges because the grounds aren’t owned by the county, which is the case in Rock County. The Walworth County Agricultural Society owns the Walworth County Fairgrounds, and that means the fair has to be almost entirely self-sustaining, Gaffey said.

“The fair businesses is risky,” Gaffey said. “Every one of the fairs need to be prepared to be able to financially withstand the storm, especially a private non-profit.

“You plan for the worst and hope for the best,” he said.

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