During last month’s initial meeting of the newly formed Merrill Festival Grounds Committee, a discussion item was broached regarding possible long term lease terms with permanent vendors at the grounds.
A proposal from the city outlined a possible 25-year agreement with each of the seven vendors who operate permanent stands on the grounds. The proposal would include a one-time annual payment to the city and in turn provide vendors with the opportunity to open during any event they deem fit, in an effort to assist groups in raising funds for dispersal back into the community.
Oversight of the vendor stands would be under the city, rather than individual events such as the fair, Wisconsin River Pro Rodeo or other events which may come to the grounds.
While city representatives appeared in favor of such a proposal, Lincoln County Fair Association representatives expressed fears of such a proposal negatively impacting the fair.
As City Administrator Dave Johnson explained during the Nov. 10 meeting, the measure would also help the city recoup some of the costs invested into the grounds, such as costs incurred from lighting of the new grandstand, a planned electrical upgrade to the cattle barn at the grounds as well as routine upkeep and maintenance costs.
“We would like to see long term contracts for fixed vendors, rather than a one or two year contract,” he explained. “Our goal isn’t to make money or even break even, we have known that from the beginning. We just are looking at ways for the city to defer cost. The idea is to subsidize the Festival Grounds to the smallest extent possible. We need some type of income coming in. Where else do we get income if we don’t get it from the people we are leasing to? We don’t have another revenue stream at this point.”
“I agree, I think we need a long term lease,” added 8th District Alderman and committee member Tim Meehean. “We need to give vendors some reliable assurances they will be able to use their property, fix it up and do what they want with it. The leases would be for the specific property of each vendor at the festival grounds.
“From my perspective, the lease should not cover just specific events. We do not want vendors to have leases with organizations. The city owns the property so the lease would be with the city, rather than specific events such as the rodeo and fair. By having these leases, vendors can have some reliability of what their costs would be annually.”
Johnson further added potential cost savings for the fair upon opening of the new Expo Center, which could eliminate the costs of tent rental by housing vendors.
“I foresee a fair on the grounds paying for utilities, consumables and that type of thing which comes at a direct cost to city, which should not be subsidized,” he added. “Beyond that, I don’t foresee there being a fee from the fair.”
Fair Association representative Sue Kunkel expressed concern of the proposal taking away from already dwindling fair revenues.
“Our concern as a fair association is we normally charge a footage fee for vendors to open up down there, which helps defrays cost of the fair,” she explained. “If we don’t have that we are not going to be able to continue. We’ve already lost $15,000 this year and we obviously cannot continue to do that. The fair is what makes food vendors goals for the year. The fair is their money maker.
“We spend around $12,000 a year for advertising and the footage fees are what pay for our advertising. I know our organization will have a concern, unless we get back some of the lease money you charge everyone to be down there.”
However, according to representatives from local VFW Post 1638 and Eagles Club Aerie 584, the idea of the fair being a money maker for vendors isn’t quite accurate.
“Not for us,” added VFW District 7 commander Michele Rathke. “We are charged so much for the footage fee, then we have to pay for security. It’s required by the fair association to have a licensed security guard. We work 10 hours each of the five days of the fair as volunteers and between the rent and security fee, we aren’t coming out ahead until Friday.”
“It takes us until Friday afternoon to make the rent payment,” agreed Eagles Club rep Neal Christiansen. “We have Friday and Saturday to make a profit.”
Meehean once again emphasized the reasoning for the city’s proposal is based on recouping costs related to the grounds and to accomplish its goals for taking over the grounds.
“When the whole issue of the fairgrounds came up, there were concerns from user groups of not any money being expended at the fairgrounds, things were falling apart and so on,” he explained. “Since taking over, the city has invested a considerable amount of money and will continue to invest money. We can’t afford that, so we must find a way to get some of that money back.
“The way we are going to do that is by doing lease terms with vendors. We won’t be able to recoup all of our costs so the remainder will have to be born by someone. We have taken on some of the cost but user groups will also have to bear some of the cost, including the fair association.”
The fair association’s outlook on the proposal was portrayed in very clear terms at the Dec. 13 meeting of the common council.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, fair association president Dale Christiansen echoed Kunkel’s sentiments of the Lincoln County Fair being directly impacted by the proposal. In fact, Christiansen indicated “major changes” taking place and the fair “not being the fair we are accustomed to” if the proposal comes to fruition.
Below is Christiansen’s December 13 statement to the council:
“I would like to start out this evening by saying thank you to all members of the City Counsel for providing me a few minutes of your time to speak to you on behalf of the Lincoln County Fair Association.
As an organization, we felt it was vital to share some information with you as soon as possible. Waiting until the next Festival Grounds Committee meeting would be time lost.
“A year ago at this time there was excitement with all of the improvements being made at the festival grounds. There was a game plan being acted on with 65 to 70% of all entertainment being secured for the 2016 fair and it was exciting. This includes Grandstand, free stage, midway and side shows (for instance animal acts, woodcarvers, caricature, magicians, etc). All of these things come with a cost, other than grandstand shows, a cost we cannot charge for. Without these attractions, we have been told, there is nothing at the fair to bring people on the grounds to patronize the other service organizations’ stands.
“Since the fair is the largest community event in Lincoln County, as it has been for the last 128 years, we
have been happy to provide this service to our community. Because of the proposals coming out of the Festival Grounds committee meeting in November, the future of the Lincoln County Fair that we have all grown accustomed to is uncertain.
“In 1880 the land we know as the fairgrounds was used for recreational purposes. A race track and baseball diamonds were there. In 1885 Lincoln County bought the property for $4500 to have a place to hold fairs. The first Lincoln County Fair was planned for 1888 with emphasis on agriculture, livestock and homemaking. In 1920 4-H clubs became a major part of the fair and this still holds true today. In 1934 the Lincoln County board turned the operation of the fair over to the 4H Leaders Association. From 1934 to 2010 the Lincoln County 4H Leaders oversaw the operation of the County Fair. Some years were profitable, some not; but always the 4H program and the youth of the area the top priority.
“This was done by having two boards of directors. The 4H Leaders board was in charge of all 4H, or youth, programs year round and all youth exhibits at the fair. The other board was the 4H fair board, comprised of all registered 4H leaders, they handled the business side of the fair.
“This consisted of all vendors, carnival, food, entertainment, ect. The two boards worked together, as money raised at the fair goes back to help finance the 4H program. The fair board pays for printing the fair entry book, processing all entries, securing and paying judges, filing all results with the Department of Agriculture, and paying premiums to all exhibitors with or without state aid.
“In 2009, the National 4H association said that the operation of a fair has become a big business and was no longer following the 4H mission statement.
“For the Lincoln County Fair to continue there would have to be major changes. 4H could no longer negotiate contracts over $500.00. That meant no entertainment, carnival etc. Also there could not be alcohol sales at any 4H sponsored event. So after a year of planning it was decided that the best thing for the 4H program and the entire community would be for the two boards to separate and continue business as close to usual as they could.
“A Memoriam of Understanding was signed so the fair could continue to provide a place for Lincoln County 4H youth to exhibit their projects and continue to provide all the services to make that exhibition happen. This was to the beginning of the Lincoln County Fair Association in 2010. From that time on, our
group of volunteers has worked very hard to build on the tradition of a great educational experience for our youth, while maintaining an entertaining venue for other community service organizations to raise the yearly operating funds they require. From that beginning in 2010 to today, we have traveled a rough road with many obstacles along the way.
“I won’t go into a detailed financial report this evening but I would like to share some of the main numbers with you as we keep hearing that the fair association is making so much money. Last year’s fair had a price tag of $197,417.00. The total revenue generated was $181,617.00.
“The 2016 fair was a negative $15,800.00 in comparison to 2015 which was $7000.00. The carnival income was down $6500.00 mainly due to weather conditions.
“The grandstand expense was $52,990.00 with an income of $27,706.00. The cost of free entertainment that raises attendance and enriches
the fair experience for the community and all involved is $19,500.00. The cost of the 4H and exhibit side of the fair is $34,000.00.
“With the pricing proposal coming out of the committee meeting, we’re looking at another $15,000.00 plus shortfall. If this is the direction the committee chooses to move forward with, so be it. But I can assure you there will be major changes in our fair. It won’t be what we’ve grown accustom to. As I stated earlier the only thing our association must provide is a venue for our 4H and FFA youth to exhibit their projects. This is the reason we volunteer. This is where our loyalties lie, this is what we will continue to do.
“We will make any changes we deem necessary to fulfill our obligation to the 4H and FFA youth in Lincoln County as this is where our Association passion lies.
“We came here tonight because we are out of time. The fair is 8 months away and there isn’t anything contracted. It’s time to answer the questions. It is time to make decisions. It’s
time for our association to move on and we wanted the committee to be aware of the reasons and the obstacles we face as we decide what direction we have to go.”
The topic will resume discussion at the committee’s next meeting on Jan. 5. Despite rather pointed statements at the Dec. 13 council meeting, Christiansen emphasizes his view of the dilemma being a matter of growing pains rather than conflict.
“I understand the city is taking on something they never have before,” he explained in an interview last week. “But the way things are written now, I feel could use some adjustments. The way it’s written now, these seven vendors can open whenever they feel like it, whether the events like it or not. If an event doesn’t have any say in how many vendors they have and which vendors open, why would they want to come in?”
“As a fair association, we have come up with ways to offset loss of revenue from vendor fees. But one of our key concerns is losing enforcement of our rules and guidelines.
“If they don’t have to follow them, we then lose control of the midway. Vendors will be doing whatever they want. We as a fair association are the folks taking the risk and paying $197,000 at the end of the week. We have to have control, there is a lot of details involved but the control has to be in the hands of the event.”
“I have spoken with promoters about this situation and they just laughed, they said there is just no way this will work. We have to start somewhere, this is a starting point.”
It seems as if Johnson is in agreement in terms of working for a solution, rather than drawing battle lines in the sand.
“Our ultimate goal is to find a solution which is acceptable to everyone,” City Administrator Johnson added. “We don’t want to lose the fair or fair vendors, but at the same time the city cannot afford to keep investing money with no way of generating any income back. The fair can’t afford that and neither can the city.”