State fair can't even afford a ticket

South Dakota State Roundup

Published March 1, 2004  | March 2004 issue

The governor's office is asking the state Legislature for $1.2 million to bail the State Fair out of debt in this year's budget proposal.

The state holds $770,000 in debt on the fair. By law the state may not make payments on an account that it cannot meet, so after funds dried up and the fair received additional vouchers to be paid, state Auditor Rich Sattgast stopped paying bills at the end of October.

The fair also ran up deficits in 2001 and 2002, but both those years the state Legislature jumped in to pay most of the difference.

Since 1996 revenues from fair vendors have declined by 33 percent. In 2000, the state began to hold the fair in July, rather than its traditional weeklong run ending Labor Day, to avoid a scheduling conflict with the beginning of the school year. That led to a major drop in fair attendance, even though attendance this year was up 3 percent.

In 2003 the Legislature took authority over the fair from an appointed commission and gave it to Agriculture Secretary Larry Gabriel. Officials plan to move the fair back to its traditional dates in 2004 in an effort to revive the event. Gabriel also has plans to use the fairgrounds for other events, such as auto racing, to increase revenues throughout the year.

Meanwhile, some legislators have suggested abandoning the traditional fair and using one of the regional fairs in Sioux Falls or Rapid City, which are self-supporting, as the state fair.

Joe Mahon