The Walworth County Fair’s financial upswing continued its steady climb last year with 2017’s profits increasing by 60 percent from 2016 and surging to their highest margin since 2004.
It also marked the second straight year the fair reported a profit. In 2016, the fair netted $61,000 after its finances had lingered in the red since 2011.
Now—after pocketing $98,704 in 2017—the fair is poised to expand its programming and debut improved infrastructure during the 2018 session Aug. 29-Sept. 3, Walworth County Fair Grounds General Manager Larry Gaffey said.
Chief among the investments is a new entrance at the east side of the fairgrounds.
The plan for the new entrance spawned from the city of Elkhorn’s decision to build a street on the fair’s east side. As a result, Gaffey said the fair extended the new road and built a fence securing the fair’s east-side border, which had previously been exposed. Those improvements totaled about $120,000 and reconfigured the fair’s layout.
“It’s safer. It gets the traffic off the highway,” Gaffey said. “The road is a major, major thing. That changes the entire landscape of the fairgrounds. It changes how people enter and exit and changes the traffic patterns.”
Gaffey also touted additions made to the fair’s indoor horse arena on the west side of the fairgrounds. He said the roofline was extended, allowing the area to accommodate larger events.
At the outdoor horse track, Gaffey said the infield was raised a couple of feet, a project that required about 14,000 yards of dirt. That area, which spans about 8 acres, is often used for parking.
In the Kiddieland area, Gaffey said the fair installed a large grain bin that doubles as an education exhibition. The exhibit will allow kids to view interactive displays about often-overlooked Wisconsin crops such as sorghum, rice and rye.
One of the fair’s costlier expenses is its grandstand concerts, which have long been a staple. This year, Gaffey said the entertainment is proving to be financially worthwhile as only a handful of reserve tickets remain for the Christian-rock group Newsboys United, which will headline the fair Sunday, Sept. 2.
“It’s selling faster than any show since I’ve been here,” Gaffey said. “Like a lot faster. There seems to be a good market.”
Tickets for the grandstand entertainment are sold separately from fair admission. Gaffey said the fair aims to break even on concerts, as the cost for providing lights and sound alone can be upward of $30,000.
Another grandstand event drawing attention this year is the Elkhorn Nationals Flat-Track Motorcycle Race on Wednesday, Aug. 29. Gaffey said professional riders and fans from across the country will flock to the fair solely for the race, and more than 14,000 people already have expressed interest on Facebook, he said.
Despite ongoing improvements and climbing profits, Gaffey said the long-term viability of the fair remains shaky. Much of the county’s structural improvements to the fairgrounds are intended to attract events and renters throughout the year—and those seem to be growing.
In June, the fairgrounds hosted a Mexican music and food festival for the first time, and the event attracted more than 20,000 people. More than 80,000 more showed up for the third annual Ribfest in July.
At this year’s fair, Gaffey expects attendance to hover around 135,000. He would prefer to see that number at about 165,000, but when it comes to turnout, he said it’s never an easy prediction.
“Running a fair is risky. It’s risky business. A lot of investment,” Gaffey said. “We’re just trying to increase the amount of income for nonfair events as much as we can. There’s something going on here all time, and we need those things to keep this place going.”