State cuts force Calif. fairs to get creative to raise money

Assembly Speaker pro Tempore Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, would create a new commission to govern fairs and help them develop ways to generate revenue.

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ANDERSON, Calif. - At the Shasta District Fair here, a recently created boosters' club is selling raffle tickets for free kids' rides and plans to operate a beer booth to support the festival in June.

At the Siskiyou Golden Fair in Yreka, operators are holding a consignment auction May 5 to raise funds.

The little fair in Tulelake, Calif., decided just to ask for donations at the gate rather than charge admission - and it made more money.

Small fairs throughout California are entering their fifth month without any funding from the state, and they're having to find creative ways to make ends meet.

However, all the little raffles and donations only go so far, acknowledged Chris Workman, the Shasta District Fair chief executive officer.

"We are doing everything we can, watching every penny and dollar that goes out," Workman said. "It doesn't take long to burn through your reserves. It's tough. It's really tough. We're determined to be around forever, so we're going to do everything we can to survive it."

Amid the state budget crisis last year, Gov. Jerry Brown zeroed out the $32 million dedicated to California's network of 79 local fairgrounds. Fairs were funded based on the calendar year, so their income from the state ended on Dec. 31. The Western Fairs Association warned that 32 of the smallest fairs could close as a result.

Lawmakers are trying to restore at least some of the money. State Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, is carrying a bill that would create an eight-character vanity plate and use the proceeds for various rural needs, including fairs and the Williamson Act tax break for agricultural land.

The legislation, Senate Bill 1454, passed the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee unanimously on April 24 and faces a May 7 hearing in the Appropriations Committee.

Assembly Speaker pro Tempore Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, would create a new commission to govern fairs and help them develop ways to generate revenue. That bill, Assembly Bill 2345, passed the Assembly Agriculture Committee on April 25 and is headed for the Appropriations Committee, where no hearing date has been set.

"I would define that (Ma bill) as a work in progress, but it's certainly important," said Stephen Chambers, the Western Fairs Association's executive director.

The LaMalfa bill would restore about a third of the funding lost to fairs, Chambers said. The WFA believes it's a sound investment, considering that fairs generate an estimated $2.65 billion annually to the state's economy and about $165 million a year in state and local tax revenue.

"We're fully aware of the state's landscape," he said. "The last thing we want to do is feel like we're in the way of funding for things like education, law enforcement or health care. But at the same time, fairs generate a lot of money for the state."

In the meantime, fairs and their supporters are finding ways to generate a little of their own money. The 10 a.m. Auction in Yreka will feature such items as farm equipment, tractors, shop tools, antiques, horse drawn equipment, furniture and collectibles. It is expected to generate between $10,000 and $20,000 - a small but not insignificant chunk of the $250,000 the fair used to receive from the state, fairgrounds CEO Cliff Munson said.

In Shasta County, local citizens got together more than two years ago to find ways to pay for grounds improvements at the Anderson fair. One of them is Chris Young, a former 4-H dad who now leads the nonprofit Friends of the Shasta District Fair.

"I don't see an effort like ours raising enough money to sustain a fair in itself, but it's one piece of the puzzle," said Young, a Redding real estate agent. "I know that some of the things we're spending money on will take some of the pressure off the budget for running the fair."