Mid-July typically marks the start of county fair season in the mid-valley, and this year is no exception: The Linn County Fair is scheduled to officially start July 18, although 4-H participants will start flocking to the fairgrounds as early as Monday.
The Benton County Fair usually gets underway a couple of weeks after the Linn fair shuts down for the year. This year's Benton County fair is scheduled to start on Aug. 1 — but, again, those industrious 4-Hers will be descending on the fairgrounds a couple of days earlier to settle in.
This year, both fairs take place against an intriguing backdrop, as officials in both Linn and Benton counties ponder ways to put their fairs (and the facilities where they take place) on a firmer fiscal footing. The Linn County commissioners were first out of the gate: Earlier this month, they approved a countywide 3 percent transient lodging tax for motels, hotels, bed-and-breakfast establishments and local campgrounds; the tax will be imposed in addition to state and local lodging taxes. The tax is scheduled to go into effect on Oct. 1.
The idea is that most of the money collected will be earmarked for the Linn County Fair & Expo Center, which now is more than two decades old. The facility has served the county well, but it's starting to show its age, and it's hard to find steady sources of revenue for maintenance and improvements. In a typical year, the fairgrounds might require an infusion of about $250,000 or so from the county's general fund.
We suspect that the Linn County commissioners would prefer that the facility and the fair break even. (The same likely is true of the Benton County commissioners.) We think that's unlikely to happen in either case, and we're OK with that — the fairs, like the city of Albany's River Rhythms series, provide a valuable service to residents. (And the Linn County Fair, unlike many other county fairs across the nation, has enjoyed increasing attendance each year, so it's obviously a service that residents value.)
With that said, the addition of the transient lodging tax should be a boost to the fair's bottom line — and should help provide some resources to keep the fairgrounds looking sharp.
Benton County's fair is in somewhat similar shape, although it has suffered from declining attendance in recent years. (It didn't help that last year's fair coincided with a particularly brutal heat wave; nothing saps fair attendance quicker than excessive heat.)
So it's no surprise that Benton County's commissioners also are giving serious consideration to their own countywide transient lodging tax.
The fairgrounds fiscal picture in Benton County is somewhat reminiscent of that in Linn County: The county's two-year budget calls for spending $343,000 each year for the fair and its fairgrounds. Of that annual amount, $120,000 per year is devoted to facility maintenance and $223,000 for operating support.
Now, $120,000 for maintenance each year only goes so far: If the Benton County Fairgrounds had access to more money for maintenance, that could eat away at some of the backlog and also could increase the fairgrounds' ability to attract additional events. And every general fund dollar that doesn't have to go to the fairs (in either county) is a dollar that can be used for another purpose, such as paving roads and public safety.
It can be tough sledding for county fairs these days, especially considering the increasing competition from other entertainment events, such as the country music festivals in Linn County. But we still think these fairs offer something that other events cannot: The chance to connect again with your community in a relaxed setting. It would be a shame to lose that. So these conversations about how to support and maintain these signature local events are timely, and valuable.