The headlines were stark in Decatur newspapers: after a nearly 160-year run, the Macon County Fair is bankrupt. During a hearing at the Illinois Department of Ag last week, the fair revealed they owe more than $300,000; $36,000 of that figure is unpaid exhibitor premiums. There will be no fair in 2014; instead, they'll hold a Macon County Fairgrounds Festival, with a carnival but no tie to 4-H or livestock exhibition.
As someone who grew up at county fairs and spent a fair number of summers exhibiting at one after another across southern Illinois, I was immediately interested in this development. Bill Fugate is secretary of the Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs and says that Macon County's problems were specific to that county. "We've known all winter that they were having problems paying exhibitors," Fugate says.
As for other fairs throughout the state, Fugate says it's a mixed bag. "Others are struggling. But some that were struggling a couple years ago are doing much better now. A lot of it is the mindset of directors and their ideas, despite lack of funding from the state."
Macon County Fair had tried a variety of fundraising options, including bingo nights that ran throughout the year. While the urban setting in Decatur seems a likely place to draw a crowd to the county fair, there are also several competing events and festivals throughout the summer.
No fair also means no fair queen, a contest Macon County has proudly supported for a lot of years. And while you might expect that it would mean big changes for the county 4-H program, Macon County 4-H director Amy Leman says they were already making plans to move their contests.
Three years ago, they decided to move their 4-H general show to a later date in the summer, to give kids more time to finish projects. At the same time, they were looking to consolidate their programs into a unit-wide program that would include Macon, Dewitt and Piatt counties. "We chose to consolidate our large livestock shows for all three counties to be held in Dewitt. That also will continue with no change," Leman explains. Their 4-H horse show has been separate from the fair for the past six years, and will continue with a combined show in Dewitt County.
The only 4-H shows to remain during the fair: rabbits and poultry.
Conventional wisdom holds that it's a shame visitors in a major city like Decatur won't be able to see cows and pigs and 4-H art projects when they head to the fair. The reality, it appears, is that they probably weren't attending anyway.