By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
INDIANAPOLIS —There’s not much pork in any state agency budget this year, thanks to declining tax revenues, but don’t expect lean times at the Indiana State Fair, which opens its 17-day run on Aug. 6.
Its share of state dollars was slashed 72 percent this past fiscal year, from $2.1 million down to $1.5 million, as part of an across-the-board move to keep the state from going into the red. Most agencies cut their budgets by 10 to 15 percent.
But the Indiana State Fair is able to take a bigger hit because it’s a moneymaker. Almost 80 percent of its $23 million budget – which covers the annual fair and year-round operation of the fairgrounds – is paid for with earned revenues.
“We took it as a vote of confidence,” said Cindy Hoye, ISF director, of the request from the state budget agency for the deep cut. “I told the staff they knew we could handle it.”
Hoye is promising a bigger and better fair than ever before. She’s earned bragging rights. Last year’s record attendance of 905,645 put Indiana in stark contrast to state fairs around the nation losing patrons and dollars.
From Illinois to Arizona, state fairs have reported declining attendance over the last decade. The California State Fair has reported a 43-percent drop in paid attendance over the 10-year period, while the Michigan State Fair, the nation’s oldest, was canceled earlier this year after its state funding was pulled.
The Indiana State Fair was in similar peril back in the late 1980s. The aging fairgrounds, which date back to 1892, had suffered from years of neglect. Hoye recalls leaking building roofs that were repaired with duct tape.
She credits an infusion of capital, beginning the early 1990s with support from former Gov. Evan Bayh, that has paid for almost $80 million in renovations and major infrastructure projects. Funding has come from a variety of sources, including a dedicated revenue stream from taxes on the state’s casinos.
The result is an attractive venue that can compete for scarce entertainment dollars.
“There was decision made that these fairgrounds were a treasure,” Hoye said. “There was an understanding that we needed to be good stewards of these historic structures. Without that, we could have ended up like Michigan, without a state fair.”
Indiana has marketed its state fair with some savvy, promoting its dizzying array of attractions, from prized pigs and tractor pulls to an entertainment venue that this year runs from Keith Urban to Kiss.
When the Indiana State Fair was among the first in the nation to ban trans-fat from its vendor’s deep fryers in 2007, it was covered in The New York Times. A year earlier, The Times’ global edition, The International Herald Tribune (distributed in 180 countries) hailed the fair as one of the best in the nation.
A key part of its continuing success is the revenue brought in year-round thanks to the rental of the grounds for a wide range of events, from cage-fighting competitions to harness racing.
Last year, the State Fair Commission decided to launch a three-year pilot project, extending the fair by five additional days. It now runs 17 days, over three weekends.
Staging this year’s fair with less money has meant a cut in what Hoye calls “backstage” costs, from fewer golf carts to smaller tents. “Hopefully our customers won’t even notice,” Hoye said. “It’s still our vision to be the best state fair in the country.”
Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at email@example.com.