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State fair a drain on budget

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SPRINGFIELD — Anyone 60 years or older walked through the gates of the Illinois State Fair for free Monday as part of senior day, but freebies like that are costing taxpayers millions of dollars every year as the fair continues to lose money.

By Andrew Thomason

SPRINGFIELD — Anyone 60 years or older walked through the gates of the Illinois State Fair for free Monday as part of senior day, but freebies like that are costing taxpayers millions of dollars every year as the fair continues to lose money.

The latest figures available show that the 10-day event in Springfield lost $2.8 million in 2009, and an even larger $3.7 million in 2008, or about 47 percent and 40 percent, respectively, according to Illinois auditor general reports.

All of the money the fair makes goes into the Illinois State Fair Fund, most of which goes back into the operation of the fair. This year the fair used an additional $800,000 from the state's general revenue fund, which includes tax dollars.

Amy Bliefnick, manager of the state fair, said legislators have talked about raising ticket prices from the current rate of $5 for adults and $2 for children 13 years and younger, but she did not provide any specifics.

Parking and entry fees cost a family of four between $21 and $27 at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, depending on the ages of the children, at this year's fair.

Donald Cox, a senior citizen who attended the fair Monday, said he has been coming for years and would shell out at least a dollar more than the $5 admittance fee to keep coming.

"We just like to see some of the new things, and it's just an experience to be out," Cox said while eyeing his favor fair fare, a pork chop on a stick.

The Illinois Policy Institute, a nonprofit free market think tank, released a study this past year, suggesting that the state could save money by outsourcing the responsibilities of the fair to a private company. The study highlights Texas, where the state fair is run by a private company and makes profits of about $5 million each year.

"We think the state fair is a really important state tradition but see no reason it should burden Illinois taxpayers," Amanda Griffin-Johnson, senior budget and tax policy analyst for the policy institute, said.

So far that idea has gained little traction in the General Assembly.

Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka says it's okay that the state fair doesn't make money.

Many state officials say the 158-year-old fair is not just about earning the state money.

"The point of the state fair, I think, really is to showcase Illinois agriculture. It's the most important industry in the state. One in four people are employed in agricultural pursuits," Jennings said.

"You'd always hope that you at least break even," Illinois' Comptroller Judy Topinka said at her tent on the fairgrounds Monday. "We do lose some money from time to time; there are folks who say this is something we should cut. How can you think that way? This is our flagship that we send out every year. That brings everyone together … It's a wonderful place"

Despite losing money, the fair contributes millions to the state economy, said Jennings.

A report commissioned by the agriculture department a decade ago when the state was losing nearly $5 million on the event, showed that the fair brought in $36 million, Jennings said.

"We're redoing that (decade-old) study this year to ascertain what that number might be in present day terms," he said. Jennings could not give a date or timeline for when the results of that study would be available.

Despite the fair losing money over the past decade, that trend may be changing, Jenner said.

"We've had vendors indicating that they've had three times the business in one day this year than they did (all 10 days) last year. So (when) those revenues increase and improve, it closes the gap between how much it costs and the actual return on that investment," Jennings said.

Bliefnick said she had heard similar good news.

"We sold the most concert tickets we've ever sold. We sold 15,300 (Sunday night). Not only did those people buy tickets to the concert, they paid admission. They paid parking; they bought a few beverages and maybe a corn dog or two. Add all of that together and it helps," Bliefnick said.

The fair runs through the end of this week.

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