LAKEPORT, Calif. – A recently formed nonprofit foundation is taking on the work of making up the Lake County Fair’s loss in funding resources from the state.
The Lake County Fair Foundation was created in the summer of 2015.
The foundation’s board includes President Ruth Stewart, and members Jane Alameda, Janeane Bogner, Chuck Doty, Annette Hopkins, Ed Robey and fair Chief Executive Officer Debbie Strickler. Erica Illg, a 4-H member, is an honorary junior member of the foundation board.
Strickler said Bogner and Hopkins also are members of the fair board, with their role to help ensure continuity between the fair and foundation boards.
A 501(c)3 nonprofit, the Lake County Fair Foundation’s stated mission is to “support the Fair by assisting with special projects including beautification and enhancement of the fairgrounds and creating and expanding the Fair’s education programs along with marketing and fundraising support.”
Strickler explained that the Lake County Fair, which began in 1949, is not, by definition, a “county fair,” but a district agricultural association – the 49th District Agricultural Association, to be precise.
“Lake County Fair is an economic engine generating tangible benefits beyond the educational, cultural and agricultural tradition,” according to a 2012 report from the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Division of Fairs and Expositions.
That report said the Lake County Fair generated $10.4 million in spending in 2012, and created the equivalent of 68 jobs that generated $2.3 million in labor income.
The Lake County Fair was part of the network of California fairs that generated more than $3.1 billion that same year, economic activity that benefited the local, state and global economy, according to the report. So far, reports on more recent years have not been made available.
Bogner said the state’s fairs had drawn funding from horse racing. Strickler said that, at one time, satellite wagering was available at the Lake County Fair’s grounds.
In a 2003 report, the California Department of Food and Agriculture reported that the fair was receiving $150,000 from a licensing fee on wagers placed on horse racing, which was allowed through a 1993 constitutional amendment.
Despite the importance of fairs to the local and state economy, during the recession the state of California began cutting back on certain areas of spending, fairs being one of them.
Up until 2012, the Lake County Fair had been receiving between $135,000 and $175,000 annually from the state, said Strickler. Then that funding was severely cut back.
California Department of Food and Agriculture spokesman Steve Lyle said state general fund support was taken away from fairs in the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Since then, Lyle said the Department of Food and Agriculture’s Division of Fairs and Expositions has supported the smaller- to medium-size fairs with 20 to 25 percent or their original full allocation.
The Division of Fairs and Expositions also experienced deep cutbacks. It went from 20 to four permanent employees as a result of the state cutbacks, Lyle said.
In the 2015-16 state budget, California’s smaller- to medium-size were granted continuous allocation support – 25 percent of the original allocation – and funds for training, which Lyle said amounted to between $2,000 and $3,000 per fair.
Lyle said the horse racing funds were diverted back to the California Horse Racing Board. While the Division of Fairs and Expositions still receives a small portion of those funds, Lyle said the division isn’t sure how those funds are allocated to the racing board.
The changing economic times have continued to prove a challenge for fairs around the state. “Fairs are fighting to stay alive right now,” said Strickler.
The California Fairs Web site said there are 78 fairs in California.
While times have been challenging at the fair level, Lyle said, “No fairs have closed or that are proposed to close.”
Finding new funding alternatives
When the larger funding amounts stopped coming from the state after 2012, the Lake County Fair had to find ways to move on without it, Strickler said.
In response to the cuts, the Lake County Fair laid off two full-time maintenance staffers – it now makes do with part-time staff and volunteers – and took other cost-saving measures while trying to find new revenue. Strickler is the only full-time employee on staff.
Strickler said the other key impact of the funding reduction was a lack of infrastructure maintenance.
“We were doing emergency repairs,” she said.
The fair’s key revenue sources currently are rentals and events, said Strickler.
After the state cut off its funding four years ago, the fair had to significantly raise its rates, which previously had been subsidized, said Hopkins.
“It was really difficult,” said Hopkins, explaining the groups who had been using the fairgrounds felt the fair was the bad guy in the situation.
Keeping events on a regular basis is key. While the fair continues to host many events, this year it lost a major one – Congressman Mike Thompson’s annual spring fundraiser dinner, which has been moved to another venue.
This past year, the fair – as it had been in 2012 – served as a Cal Fire command post, this time for the Rocky, Jerusalem and Valley fires.
While the state reimbursed the fairs for the grounds’ use, it still resulted in high utility costs that the fair had to cover, Strickler said, plus the need to replace the sod on the baseball field, where equipment had been parked.
The presence of Cal Fire for several weeks also necessitated canceling the Mexican rodeo and some of the racing events that were to have taken place at the Lakeport Speedway, also located at the fairgrounds racetrack, Strickler said.
The foundation’s formation emerged as a way of involving the community in supporting the fair.
Doty said that while people love the fair – which has been a part of Lake County’s annual cycle of events for nearly seven decades – they don’t realize what it takes behind the scenes to keep the fair going.
As for what the fair’s current needs are, a capital expenditure strategy is being created which will help guide the foundation’s fundraising, Strickler said.
Strickler said the grounds were painted last year and the doors on Phil Lewis Hall already have been replaced thanks to a donation from the Lakeport Rotary Club.
This past year the state gave the Lake County Fair $245,000 to replace entry doors on buildings throughout the fairgrounds, Strickler said.
She said watchdog agencies will be monitoring how the fair spends that money, and overall the fair must still follow the state’s strict financial reporting guidelines.
Foundation members also note that any money the state gives it can take back, while the state can’t control what the foundation raises.
The foundation is still in its infancy, but already has raised more than $18,000, with about a third of that coming from Erica Illg, a Kelseyville 4-H member who sold her goat at the 2015 Lake County Fair’s Junior Livestock Auction for nearly $5,300.
Another $10,000 came from Lake County Rising through the Wine Alliance to help 4H and FFA members impacted by the Valley fire.
The foundation is pursuing various fundraising avenues, including sending out letters seeking donations from businesses and community members.
They also are recruiting charter members, with annual dues to create another revenue stream. Membership levels are lifetime, $3,000; business, $400; family, $300; nonprofits, $150; individual, $100; and junior, $25. Dues for 2015 will continue through 2016, Strickler said.
Strickler said the foundation board decided its first big project would be the renovation of bathrooms in Phil Lewis Hall, which at 10,000 square feet is one of the county’s largest rental facilities. The new bathrooms are estimated to cost $25,000.
The foundation’s first fundraiser event, which will support those bathroom upgrades, will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 1, in Phil Lewis Hall.
Strickler said the foundation plans to hold a reception when the bathrooms project is complete.
“We’re taking one need at a time,” said Doty.
He added that they want to have a regular annual fundraiser on April 1.
The foundation board also is planning a barbecue picnic and membership meeting on July 31 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the fairgrounds, and Strickler said the foundation can accept donations of volunteer work and time.
The Lake County Fair Foundation Board meets on the second Monday of every month at 9 a.m. The next meeting is March 14.
Donations and membership fees can be mailed to the Lake County Fair Foundation at P.O. Box 967, Lakeport, CA 95453. The foundation’s tax identification number is 47-4060372.
For more information or to join call the Lake County Fair at 707-263-6181.
Email Elizabeth Larson at email@example.com . Follow her on Twitter, @ERLarson, or Lake County News, @LakeCoNews.