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story.lead_photo.caption Jasmine Jones (left) of Little Rock waits in the rain for her daughter to finish a ride at the Arkansas State Fair on Oct. 15. Fair officials said persistent rain caused an operating shortfall at this year’s event, and lawmakers endorsed a plan Wednesday to allocate up to $911,050 in rainy-day funds to cover the losses. - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

A divided Arkansas Legislative Council authorized that nearly $1 million in state rainy-day funds be made available to the nonprofit that runs the Arkansas State Fair, but not before it got an earful from lawmakers who have taken heat from constituents.

In a split voice vote, the council heeded a subcommittee's Wednesday recommendation to sign off on Gov. Asa Hutchinson's request for up to $911,050 for the Arkansas Livestock Show Association, which had a budget shortfall resulting from this fall's rain-soaked fair.

After pausing briefly, council co-chairman Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, ruled that the motion approving the request passed.

Before the vote, several lawmakers grilled the association's interim General Manager and President Doug White for about 20 minutes about what steps officials are taking to shore up the fair's finances.

State Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, warned White that "you would be hard-pressed to come back around next year and expect to get any money."

Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, told White that "you came to committee the other day and reported that you needed these funds because you had six days of rain" during the 10-day fair in October.

"I just want you to know that I was bombarded with calls from my folks back home with their county fairs who volunteer their time or can't get [state General Improvement Funds] anymore, so they were very disturbed," said Bentley, whose district includes parts of Conway, Perry, Pope and Yell counties.

Doug White, interim general manager and president of the Arkansas Livestock Show Association, told lawmakers Friday that he and others were “looking at every single line item” to avoid costly mistakes. 
Hammer
Doug White, interim general manager and president of the Arkansas Livestock Show Association, told lawmakers Friday that he and others were “looking at every single line item” to avoid costly mistakes. Hammer

Cynthia Bearden, a part-time accountant for the fair association, said the $5.6 million budget for this year has been trimmed to $4.3 million for 2019.

White told lawmakers that the association would use the rainy-day funds to pay some livestock premiums, advertising and media expenses for the fair, some vendors and other expenses, and "put us in a positive cash flow going towards the new calendar year."

The association has about $120,000 in reserves, he said.

"We are looking at cost cutting, along with other revenue opportunities, so that we don't have to come back here and ask for money," he said.

Bentley pressed White about how much the state fair's gate fees and concessions dropped this year as compared with last year because "I know you really depend on your fair to make ends meet."

White said overall revenue from this year's fair was about $700,000 lower than the average for the three previous years.

Concession revenue was down by about 30 percent, and gate revenue was "down by 20-something percent," he said.

Direct comparison is difficult, he said, "because we contracted with a new carnival group this year, but ... our carnival income was down as well, so [losses were] across the board and all due to the six days of rain, particularly the two days of rain on the weekends," White said.

Bentley said a private audit showed that the Arkansas Livestock Show Association's payroll is about $900,000 a year, so she wondered how many full-time employees the association has.

The association started 2018 with 18 full-time employees, and "in the past three weeks we have reduced that to 10 full-time employees," White said.

The association's board has decided to take a more active role in the day-to-day operations, he said, and has already reduced next year's payroll expenses by about $500,000.

"I am looking at every single line item, along with our accountant, along with our associates at [the state finance department] to ensure we don't make those mistakes again," White said.

White said the association also receives about $880,000 a year from state government.

Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said "I have a lot of confidence because people like [Sen.] Bruce Maloch are on your board.

"But we have real needs in our state from 911 that are real immediate needs that save people's lives, and to just continue to dump another $1 million a year into the State Fair that can't even operate at a million-dollar-a-year loss is a real concern of mine, so it is good to hear that you guys are making changes," he said. "I would encourage you to continue in time with more changes to make that work."

White said he's working on an analysis requested by Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, to review what other similar-sized states contribute to their state fairs.

"I will tell you just from our experience there is not a single state fair with our size that would have the rainy-day reserves to withstand six days of rain. It just was a freak occurrence, and ... our conservative operating budget for 2019 includes rain in it, whereas before we were just hoping for 10 days of sunshine. No more. We are going to be more pragmatic about it," he said.

White said Little Rock city officials committed seven years ago to use part of the city's 0.375 percent sales tax increase for capital improvements for projects at the State Fair. The total commitment was $3 million, or $300,000 a year, over 10 years, and "we have spent about $1.3 million of that," he said.

Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, asked White whether the association sought additional assistance from the city of Little Rock to help the fair through this financial crisis.

"We did not, sir," White replied.

"That really should have probably happened, to be honest with you, because Little Rock is the beneficiary of all the activity that comes here to the State Fair," Rapert said.

"I absolutely support the livestock showing, which is really the essence [of] the fair. It is supporting those young men and women that work hard and do the showing whether it is 4H, FFA, etc.," he said.

"I would really encourage the leadership of those different programs to consider whether or not they need to be supporting a losing operation when they could absolutely continue to have the state-level showing and competition and have the outcomes that they normally have without having to worry about a situation in which it is a losing operation," Rapert said.

"And that may be that maybe the State Fair needs to consider a different location, if it can't be profitable in the heart of Little Rock."

Elliott said a study was done several years ago about moving the fair, and "the determination was we are better off remaining where we are."

The fairgrounds are within her district.

Photo by 30169888A
Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton
Photo by Staton Breidenthal
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway

A Section on 12/22/2018

Print Headline: Foundering Arkansas State Fair gets lifeline of $911,050, earful from state lawmakers

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Comments

  • zzzzipy12
    December 22, 2018 at 4:36 a.m.

    Time to end this money pit!

  • GeneralMac
    December 22, 2018 at 9:54 a.m.

    Jason Rapert made an excellent point about the city of Little Rocl benefitting from the people coming to the fair yet they were not asked for help $$$$$$$$$$.

  • ChenalMe
    December 22, 2018 at 11 a.m.

    Are you kidding me!? A taxpayer funded bailout of the state fair. Shame on you Governor and every other politician who voted for this.

  • ArkOzark
    December 22, 2018 at 11:47 a.m.

    I hope our legislators are smart enough to know that "studies" tend to prove just what the person paying wants the study to prove. Of course Joyce Elliott (of Little Rock) claims her study said Little Rock was the best place for the state fair. And even she has to acknowledge it was done "several years ago"... before Little Rock began challenging Detroit and Chicago for the murder and crime capitals of the world. As with all "studies", one should look at what comparisons were made, who paid for it, who performed the study, what parameters and variables were required by the sponsor, and what the sponsor's interests were. WHy not look at factors such as where livestock and agriculture presenters live, how the cost of security at various locations compares, what land is available for the best cost and best reflects the expected attendance size. and how many people would participate at various locations. Also consider the highest population growth rate over the past decade. That definitely wouldn't be Little Rock. Nor would a sense of family safety, thanks to failed law enforcement and city management in Little Rock. In fact, if the rest of the state is going to be bailing this fair out, maybe we should consider a rotating location schedule such as the Olympics does. Rotating would allow Northwest cities, which have the fastest growth in the state, to put together a fair that best reflects their interests, and brings more awareness to the area. Ditto Northeast, and South areas. But even closer to mid-state areas should be allowed to compete for the site, such as White County, Russellville, Conway, Searcy, Cabot, etc. Let the areas compete to showcase their city or county. If the businesses are willing to support it, we should get better oversight over expenses than when a group from Little Rock knows the state will bail them out every year. Certainly, a backup contingency for weather and such disruptions could still be built in, but not a blank check that covers mismanagement. I would love to see an Olympics-style competition for the state fair that extends 4 to 6 years out. Let Little Rock compete - and make finances a part of the competition!

  • BKindOnline
    December 22, 2018 at 11:53 a.m.

    Move the fair. The parking is atrocious.

  • GeneralMac
    December 22, 2018 at 12:16 p.m.

    Moving the state fair to a different location every year would be cost prohibitive.

    Even every county fairgrounds have permanent buildings and muktiple locations having facilities big enough to host a fair would be costly.

    Maybe Arkansas could pick a site like Missouri did.

    NOT......in St Louis, Kansas City, Springfield, or St Joseph.

    Located in Sedallia .

    I doubt Illinois would have its state fair in the crime ridden city of East St Louis.

  • condoleezza
    December 22, 2018 at 12:48 p.m.

    Welfare for a Fair? Only someone like GeneralHUSSEINMaKKK would support such a dumb idea. By the way in case you have not heard, GMac's middle name is HUSSEIN! that's why he is so obsessed with it.

  • RBear
    December 22, 2018 at 1:03 p.m.

    Moving the State Fair will not solve any problems. One of the key events of the fair is the PRCA Rodeo which would require a sizable arena to host. The only locations available for that would be Simmons Arena in NLR (no room around the arena for livestock or exhibits) or Barnhill (same problem). Parking could be solved by using park and ride, something I've never figured out why Rock Region Metro hasn't done more of. I've heard they claim a conflict with federal transit funding which is a bad interpretation. Other cities do it all the time. Hopefully, the new director there will set things straight.
    ...
    Little Rock has contributed a lot to the fair as has the state, yet it struggles financially. That's strange since other fairs in TX have no problems at all and, in fact, have an operating surplus to allow them to give back to the community. With regards to location, I still don't see that as a problem. It may need better management of the situation.
    ...
    The State Fair is running into the same problems that plagued Riverfest - too much of the same old ideas. It's time for the fair to take a step back and rethink how they are doing things, possibly sitting down with some of the successful fairs around the nation to see what works. Texas has three that are massive compared with the Arkansas State Fair. Iowa is another to look at as well as Ohio. The key is to focus meeting the original objectives of the fair, showcasing the agricultural achievements of the state.

  • condoleezza
    December 22, 2018 at 1:29 p.m.

    RBEAR. Are you insane? You want Arkansas to come into the 21st Century? Where would GeneralHUSSEINMaKKK live in such a world?! Actually, you make a lot of good points. The old adage that Arkansas is always about a decade or two behind the rest of the country is still true. Fairs don't have to be so "country" themed. We could shake it up a bit and bring a bit of diversity to the game.

  • GeneralMac
    December 22, 2018 at 2:03 p.m.

    Maybe Arkansas could see what Minnesota is doing.

    2nd biggest state fair in the US ( only Texas is bigger).

    In 2018 the attendance set a RECORD of 2,046,533 for its 12 day run.
    It broke the RECORD set in 2017.

    Livestock exhibits are HUGE so no need to follow CONDOLEEZA'S advice of dropping "country" and turning it into " diversity" ( buzz word for gayfest ).

    One thing making Minnesota's state fair so successful is it is ALWAYS held for 12 days and ends on Labor Day.

    Schools in Minnesota don't start until the day after Labor Day so many outstate families make the State Fair a part of their summer family vacations.

    Arkansas State Fair will always struggle due to the earlier school start location.

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