Fair and square
For more than 30 years, the Jackson County Expo and Fairgrounds has operated in the red, requiring large infusions of cash from the county’s general fund to stay afloat.
But this June, the end of the fiscal year, fair board Chairman Chris Smith hopes to give county commissioners some good news.
“We are projecting to be in the black,” Smith said. “We’ve cut a lot of expenses to get it that way.”
Smith acknowledged his promise of operating “in the black” includes about $185,000 annually from the county for maintenance of the buildings. But he hopes eventually the fairgrounds will be financially self-sufficient enough that it can pick up that cost, too.
For now, Smith hopes the fairgrounds won't have to ask county commissioners for another loan to meet its operational budget as it has time and time again.
Five years ago, the fairgrounds had up to eight employees. But its staff has been pared to three, including newly appointed interim Director Helen Funk.
The county hopes Funk and a relatively new fair board will provide the momentum to get the fairgrounds on track financially. Funk and the board met with county commissioners recently to bring them up to speed on their progress.
“I’m not saying I’m a silver bullet,” Funk said. “It’s going to require a team of people working together to get this going out here.”
“At the end of the day, everybody is working hard to make it work," Smith said.
Ten years ago, the fairgrounds' budget was about $2 million; this year it's about $1.5 million, he said. If the fairgrounds continues to make progress, Smith might ask for additional funds at some point to add staff so that more events can be staged.
The fairgrounds' cost-cutting measures include reducing the annual Jackson County Fair from six days to five, a savings of about $50,000. Smith said other fairs that have had similar cuts haven’t noticed a sharp decline in overall attendance.
Even with the deep cuts made over the years, a lot will be riding on the board’s commitment to end the year in the black. And they're aware that similar promises have been made by other fair boards and fairgrounds managers over the years.
At the beginning of the 2013-14 fiscal year, the Expo was $314,305 in the red. The commissioners voted to help with the debt while urging fairgrounds directors to correct questionable practices, including allowing vendors to operate on the grounds without a contract.
“That was a huge vote of confidence to forgive the debt from last year,” Funk said.
In exchange, county officials expect the fairgrounds to continue to upgrade its policies and find new ways to increase revenues. One idea is to end the practice of giving out large quantities of free tickets to some local organizations, such as Future Farmers of America. County officials have said those free tickets are often used by family and friends, as well as by the participants.
“Everybody feels they've got a fabulous reason to be here and not pay for it,” Funk said.
The county also wants the fairgrounds to require vendors to sign a contract rather than operate on a handshake, a practice that has persisted for decades. In years past, some vendors also were employees of the fairgrounds, which raised conflict-of-interest issues. Smith and Funk have vowed to clear up these handshake deals that could have exposed the county to liability issues.
Funk said her goal is to have the Expo in the black by the time the fair opens, which this year is July 22-26, but she acknowledges it will be close.
“We are going to be incredibly close,” she said. “I have no pride if we are that stinking close.”
Commissioner Doug Breidenthal said the current fair board has been making a lot of tough decisions and is on course to correct questionable practices outlined in a 2011 audit (see accompanying story).
Breidenthal said the fair board and county commissioners now have two meetings a year during which they discuss progress in instituting county policies and correcting issues.
“For the first time in years, everybody’s pulling on the same end of the rope,” Breidenthal said. “They are making some real hard decisions, and the decisions are saving the taxpayers money.”
One of those changes is having the county finance department handle the fair's books, saving 75 percent of the $85,000 it cost previously, Breidenthal said.
The county will continue to monitor the Expo and potentially could supplement its budget if the fair board can show progress in its business plan, he said.
“The fair is the heart of the community,” Breidenthal said. “What we’re working on is long-term programs for the Expo.”
One project being discussed to generate more revenue is an RV park on the fairgrounds. Breidenthal said it could require the county to pay money up front for the capital improvement.
Unlike the library system, the fairgrounds won’t require any new taxes from the public, Breidenthal said.
The fairgrounds has taken other steps to save money, such as turning over promotions of concerts to other businesses and organizations. The Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians will promote two of the three concerts lined up for the fair in July. The concerts include 38 Special, Brett Eldredge and Theory of a Deadman.
In the fall, the fairgrounds plans to host a hemp and cannabis fair, which will be closely monitored, Funk said.
Funk said she was happy to turn over the fair's financial duties to the county because it allows her to concentrate on making the fair and the Expo a success.
“We want to bring the fun back,” she said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.