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Funding to fairs a hot button issue

December 21, 2011

Funding for popular county fairs like the Northeast Washington Fair in Colville are in question, given the state’s budget woes.

Call this a good news/bad news (or potentially) story line for the Northeast Washington Fair. The good news is that the fair has received grant funding that will help make some necessary repairs/upgrades to facilities. The bad news is the black hole that is the Washington state budget and how some potential draconian cuts could impact fairs like the popular four-day event on the Northeast Washington Fairgrounds each August. The Northeast Washington Fair has received a pair of grants from the Washington State Agriculture Fairs division for 2012. Awarded on safety and energy-efficiency criteria was a $17,000 electrical upgrade to the grandstands at the fairgrounds. According to Northeast Washington Fair Manager, Lori Matlock, the money will help upgrade “all the overhead lamps with new energy efficiency lighting” since the old, existing fixtures “are so obsolete that you will not be able to get (replacement) bulbs soon.” Grandstand lighting The grant funding will also help with lighting underneath the grandstands so that area can be better utilized, Matlock said. The final section of that grant funding addresses exterior lights on the grandstand roof. “We will be able to bring them (lights) down and under the eaves so the snow does not tear them off each winter,” Matlock noted, adding that the steps going up the aging grandstand will also be repaired, although she conceded, “I’m not sure how yet, but they will get fixed.” There was also grant funding to move the Spencer stage to its new home. “We will have to ask for help with some concrete footings and blocks for a permanent home,” the fair manager added. “Our performing arts and our local talent…and the fact that this area is rented out more and more requires an upgrade,” Matlock pointed out. “Thanks to all those folks who come and help at the fair and on the grounds. Your efforts are never taken for granted.” While the grant funding helps, counties and fair managers like Matlock are worried about the potential impact of the state’s budget woes. Ditto for cash-strapped Stevens County and its dwindling coffers. A supplemental budget Gregoire released last month just ahead of a special session of the Washington State Legislature proposes $2 billion in cuts and floated the idea of a temporary sales tax increase, along with some other measures to try and stem the tide and negative impact of some of the looming cuts that will become clearer during the regular legislative session in early 2012. Likely to be among the affected will be the summer life-blood of many rural Washington counties—county fairs. $3 million cut proposed to Department of Agriculture budget to state fairs Among the budget axe proposals is a $3 million cut to the Department of Agriculture’s budget for state fairs. Sure, taking that prized, potential grand champion to the fair will still be a good idea, but the money might not be what it once was. Can you say “premium?” Premiums are the cash awards that are paid in agriculture, arts and crafts to exhibitors at fair time. Cutting funding that is used for fair premiums could particularly impact agriculture categories because the prize money is an incentive for young people to haul their livestock from farm to county fairs like the Northeast Washington Fair in Colville. If state fair money is cut, the upshot is likely smaller cash prizes or cuts to other attractions that bring patrons through the fair turnstiles each summer. In eastern Washington counties like the Tri-County region, state money makes up between 25 and 50 percent of fair budgets. “Our governor (Chris Gregoire) is trying her best to shut the fairs down,” Matlock said bluntly. “As you know, this will have a trickle down effect…right down to the most important…the kids. “There are several generations of avid 4-H members who have built this program and this fair into what it is today. I urge you to contact your governor today and explain why this is just not acceptable.” Change is in the offing, and where it concerns cornerstone events for counties like community fairs, those changes won’t be pretty. “With the budget cuts at the (Stevens) county level, there will be some changes, I have been told,” Matlock added. “So hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen. We may end up in Kansas on this tailwind.”

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