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Vilas County Fair in financial jeopardy

November 15, 2019 by Jacob Friede

According to a report given to the Vilas County Forestry, Recreation, and Land Committee last week, the Vilas County Fair is in serious financial trouble and on the verge of extinction.

“Right now they’re in excess of $2,000 in the red based on the last fair,” said Bob Egan, executive director of the Vilas County Economic Development Corporation (VCEDC).

At the request of the county, the VCEDC recently evaluated the economic stability and sustainability of the Vilas County Fair Board, the entity which oversees the Vilas County Fair and other activities at the fairgrounds. VCEDC’s evaluation was part of a business action plan developed to lead the Fair Board into the future. The plan included in-depth analysis of the Fair Board’s facilities, finances, management, marketing efforts, and current lease.

The Vilas County Fair Board leases the fairgrounds from Vilas County, which owns the land and insures the buildings on it.

However, citing decreasing fair revenue and a current lease that places the responsibility of expensive liability insurance for events, the upkeep of the property, and the maintenance on 50-60-year-old buildings on the Fair Board, Egan concluded the current situation is unsustainable.

“The current lease, like I said, it doesn’t make for a sustainable operation out there,” he said. “When you add all the expenses up and the maintenance versus what the revenues are right now.”

As a result, according to Egan, the county has limited options.

“I think the county has one of three choices,” Egan said. “Either the county can be the only county in the state that doesn’t have a fair. They can turn around and sell the fairgrounds, which I think is a bad idea, or we can get some assistance from the county board and move forward with revitalizing this whole project.” 

While cost has outweighed the revenue brought in by the fair, other factors also exist that have contributed to a failing enterprise. Egan found the Fair Board was behind the times in their marketing effort and they needed much direction and focus in that department, especially on social media. He also said the Fair Board must develop new experiences if it’s going to attract new fair goers. 

“These young people don’t come to a place to sit and look at the lake for two weeks or a week,” Egan said. “They come to events or experiences and we have to create new experiences at the fair.”

In addition to a new generation of fair goers, there is also a need for a new generation of fair volunteers, because the Fair Board could use some help.

“You got seven people that are doing all this out at the fairgrounds right now and they’re not getting any volunteers,” Egan said.

His evaluation was aided by a consultant from the Manitowoc County Fair, who said it is vital for a county fair to have not only individual volunteers, but civic groups like Boy Scouts, Rotary Clubs, and Lions Clubs participating as well.

That same consultant saw promise in the fair due to the size of the Vilas County fairgrounds, and Egan shared in that optimism.

“The opportunity is there,” he said. “It’s a beautiful piece of property. It just needs a little work.”

‘They can’t keep going the way they’re are going’

County board supervisor and committee member Holly Tomlanovich agreed the property was promising, but noted it’s current challenges.

“It’s a large piece of property with some really good visibility that seems to be somewhat fresh out of ideas,” she said.

One fresh idea, voiced by Tomlanovich, was management and oversight of the fairgrounds be restructured so the Fair Board is not responsible for all the other events, like Cranberry Fest and fishing tournaments, that happen at the fairgrounds.    

“Perhaps a board by which the Vilas County Fair is one entity of that piece of property,” Tomlanovich said. “A board over the top of these events, rather than the Fair Board over the top of these events.”

In addition to management restructuring, developing new uses for the fairgrounds was also brought up at the meeting.

“Some of those buildings could be used for weddings,” Egan said. “They could be used for other things, not to compete with local businesses and that, but there are other events that could be handled out there. The rental agreements could be structured a little different then what they are right now and a little more consistent.”

But in order to expand the use of the current buildings, they must be renovated, and that is going to take money which neither party, the Fair Board or the county, seems to have.

“We don’t have the money,” said Ron DeBruyne, county board chairman and committee member. “It’s as simple as that. These guys walked into this lease, or their predecessors walked into this lease I don’t know how long ago, and the terms were OK with them. It’s just that in recent history that this whole thing is a big problem.”

Nonetheless the problem exists and Tomlanovich said the county has to make a move one way or the other.

“The facts of life are they can’t keep going the way they’re going because they’re not going to be going much longer,” she said. “And we as county board supervisors are going to look pretty damn stupid because we didn’t do anything here. We either figure out a way to have them continue. We give them notice that we’re going to terminate the lease. We search for someone else to lease that property and continue that effort. Or we look for another best use for that piece of property which could be anything from selling it to whatever. We can’t just sit. We have to come up with a choice.”

It was, however, unclear what, specifically, the Fair Board was looking for from the county.  

“I don’t see how this committee at this point, given what we’ve been given to date, can even carry on a serious discussion, much less make a decision about what we do and where we go,” county board supervisor and committee member Jay Verhulst said. “What we need is somebody to pull this whole thing together so that we can have an actual plan maybe in phases or whatever to start moving in a positive direction.”

Egan said he was more than willing to provide a more detailed plan and the purpose of his report was to advise the committee on the situation and make sure the committee wanted to proceed.

“You guys are the ones who tasked me with this and I will do whatever you want to do,” Egan said. “Im just looking for direction at this point.”

An official motion was made to direct the Vilas County Economic Development Corporation to create a proposal to deal with options for the advancement of the fairgrounds. The motion was made by Verhulst, seconded by Tomlanovich, and approved unanimously.

Jacob Friede may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]

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