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Nevada County Fairgrounds adapts to financial challenges

Victoria Penate
Special to The Union

BY THE NUMBERS

2010 fairgrounds’ revenue: $2,000,070

State provided funds: $250,000, about 12.5% of total budget

2020 fairgrounds’ projected revenue: $2.75 million

State provided funds: $27,500, about 1% of total budget

After nearly a decade of adapting to a primarily self-funded model, the Nevada County Fairgrounds faces its most difficult financial challenge yet — a potential 90% loss in revenue this year relative to what was projected prior to the pandemic.

The Nevada County Fair, alongside other fairs organized under the California District Agricultural Association, once received an annual allocation of funds from the state that would go toward projects and equipment. However, in 2011 virtually all of this funding was eliminated.

“It was really a crisis point for fairs, and some of them actually went away. Others adapted,” said Patrick Eidman, CEO of the Nevada County Fairgrounds.

According to Eidman, a dramatic shift was necessary at that point if the county fair were to survive. The event is now almost entirely self-funded, primarily through rental of the fairgrounds for music festivals, fundraisers, and other events.

“There is an allocation from the state, but it makes up a little over 1% of our revenue for the year, so it is helpful but tiny relative to what it takes to operate this place,” said Eidman.

In 2010 the revenue for the entire fairgrounds was $2,000,070. The state provided about $250,000 of that, or about 12.5%

This year officials projected revenue of $2.75 million, though that was before the pandemic hit. About 1% — $27,500 — of that came from the state.

Due to the pandemic, this spring has brought a long season of cancelled events to the McCourtney Road fairgrounds, a particularly harsh blow because March was set to kick off the busiest period of the year. Since 2011 in particular, the fairgrounds has expanded its event season, operating some aspects such as the RV park year-round.

While prices at the fair have risen, they have not generally been raised by fairgrounds staff with the purpose of offsetting the last decade’s lack of state funding. Price raises, according to Eidman, have been made when needed due to rising costs, including that of increasingly expensive utilities and insurance for the fairgrounds.

“We’re committed to the fair being very affordable family entertainment, and that definitely includes parking and gate prices. If you look at other fairs that offer the same level of entertainment options, we’re certainly one of the most affordable fairs,” said Eidman.

There was no price increase from last year scheduled for the now-cancelled 2020 fair. Eidman cited promotional pricing as an alternate way to offset increased costs, citing last year’s “Community Day” as an example.

“Last year, Thursday had $3 entry, so gate revenue was down but concessions and carnival attractions were way up, so it was ultimately great,” said Eidman. “Treat Street had one of their best Thursdays in a long time.”

He added that fairgrounds staff have worked closely with local businesses on a sponsorship program, both for individual events and year-round partnerships. This is another source of revenue for the fairgrounds, and provides sponsors with visibility to the approximately 250,000 people who visit each year.

ADDED UNCERTAINTY

The annual county fair itself brings in roughly half of the fairgrounds’ yearly revenue, attracting around 100,000 people each year during its five-day span.

“We used to worry about bad weather or a power outage disrupting the fair, and the major impact that could have when one event is driving so much of your revenue,” said Eidman. “To lose it entirely is, frankly, financially catastrophic for us.”

He added that staff have individually taken cuts in income in order to keep the operation viable for long enough to reopen.

Eidman also expressed concern for the impact the cancellation of this year’s fair would have on other organizations, including the nonprofits that participate as food and drink vendors on Treat Street. Some of the organizations rely primarily on the fair for their yearly fundraising, which is a motivating factor for the planning of a drive-thru Treat Street this year.

Job’s Daughters is one such nonprofit organization, known among Nevada County fair-goers for its corn dogs.

“It all becomes a blur from year to year, but corn dogs do very well, and we stay very busy at Treat Street,” said Chris Norvelle, bethel guardian of Job’s Daughters in Grass Valley. “It’s really great that it’s almost all nonprofits, because a lot of fairs don’t do this.”

Despite Treat Street being its only fundraising event most years, it has not yet been decided whether Job’s Daughters will participate in this year’s drive-thru Treat Street. Norvelle explained that they are weighing concerns, including cost of insurance.

Cathy Whittelsey, executive director of the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce, said that chamber staff have decided not to participate in Treat Street this year in its drive-thru form.

“It represents a community feeling. Everyone buys into the fair, and I know there are a lot of disappointed people after the cancellation, but we just have to go on and hope that next year will be great,” said Whittelsey.

She added that the event is normally a significant fundraising opportunity for the chamber, but explained that the decision not to participate this year, saying, “Our product is hamburgers and root beer floats, which people don’t generally line up down the road for as with more popular items. It just didn’t seem like it would be a financial gain for us.”

She cited the additional planning and costs associated with setting up and operating while observing current distancing and sanitizing regulations as an additional deterrent.

Eidman echoed this as a relevant cost in the event’s planning, saying, “We’ve always prided ourselves on having a very clean and safe fair, but this is going to require taking that up another notch, and there are certainly costs associated with that.”

However, he said he is optimistic about the community’s response to the event, which — while its timing is still tentative — seems it will draw enough interest to span multiple nights.

“It’s a real financial crunch, and we’re doing our best to make sure we can keep this place open,” said Eidman. “It’s more than the fairgrounds as a place for a fair and events. It needs to be here ready to be a fire camp or evacuation center as well, and we’re very cognizant of that.”

Victoria Penate is a freelance writer for The Union.


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