With an average attendance in the past decade of 293,000 people and an annual state appropriation of about $757,000, Utah has the most under-attended and highly subsidized state fair among comparable Intermountain states, a new audit says.
The cumulative state subsidy totaled $6.8 million from 2004 to 2012, despite a directive requiring the Utah State Fair Corporation (USFC) to have a plan to operate self-sufficiently, according to the audit, which was conducted by the Office of the Utah State Auditor.
The USFC could increase revenue by seeking out uses for the fairpark during non-fair days, the audit says. And, it says, there also are options that would not require competing with private businesses that do not receive state subsidies.
"Among these opportunities, the USFC board could consider fully privatizing the USFC and the state fairpark, contracting with a private management company to manage the state fairpark, co-locating the state fair with a county fair, or relinquishing the state fairpark in favor of renting appropriate space to hold the 11-day state fair," the audit says.
The audit compared USFC operations with six state fairs in surrounding states and six county fairs in Utah. According to its findings, Arizona, Idaho and New Mexico have almost twice the number of visitors per capita than the Utah State Fair — one out of every 10 Utah residents attends the annual event in Salt Lake City, while about one in five visits the fair in the other three states.
All four hold their fair in their state’s most populous city. Arizona, Idaho and New Mexico claim to be self-sufficient and do not receive an ongoing state appropriation, the audit says.
The auditor’s office said the "limited performance audit" was conducted because of concerns about the ability of the USFC to operate self-sufficiently. The Utah Legislature created the USFC, which is overseen by an 11-member board appointed by the governor, in 1995 with the intent of privatizing fair operations.
The annual fair begins the Thursday before Labor Day and runs for 11 days. The event is held on a 65-acre site at 155 N. 1000 West that is owned by the state’s Division of Facilities Construction and Management.
In a written response, the USFC said its fair is unique and does not have a comparable venue in the Intermountain area. It notes that several of the other fairs contain casino gambling, racetrack facilities and pari-mutual wagering, which draw more visitors.
The USFC also said the audit should have compared revenue from ticket sales, rather than attendance numbers, because fair organizations will issue more complimentary and reduced-price tickets to visitors going to casino or horse-racing facilities.
"Tickets sold contribute to the bottom line and demonstrate demand," the fair organization said.
The USFC agreed that the fairpark could be used more but said a 2012 master plan determined that the facilities have limited use because of their age and condition. The buildings and grounds are "in tremendous need of investment and upgrades," it said.
In addition, the organization is competing with larger event venues — including the Salt Palace and South Towne Expo Center — that also receive public funding, the USFC said.
"Since its inception (1902) the State Fairpark has been in the business of renting out space for meetings, concerts, festivals, spectaculars and agriculture expositions," the response said. "Our competitors for outside rentals have more modern facilities better meeting the needs of potential renters and users."
In the past 12 months, more than 170,000 people came to the fairgrounds for events other than the fair, the USFC said.
Attendance at the fair has decreased since hitting a high of 327,100 visitors in 2008 and dropped to about 260,000 last year, a low attributed to several days of rain and competing events taking place at the same time. (The figure is of daily visitors; a person who attends two days is included in the count as two visitors).
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