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Wyo Legislature Tackles Wyoming State Fair Challenges

Written by Hans Hunt

The Wyoming State Fair has been a cultural institution for more than 100 years. For generations, Wyomingites have flocked to Douglas for nearly two weeks each summer to attend the event. Participants and spectators alike have come to take in the rodeos, horse shows, exhibits, food vendors and other entertainment provided.

In 2016, it cost $847,248 to put on the State Fair itself. Throughout the rest of the year, further funding is required to maintain the grounds and the facilities. All total, the State Fair receives 67.5 percent of its revenue from public funding, a percentage far above almost all bordering states, which primarily rely on fees, private donations and other sources to fund their fairs.

During the 2017 interim, the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Agriculture, Public Lands and Water Resources committee took on the issue of trying to make the State Fair and the grounds more revenue-efficient. To help provide the legislative committee with additional input, the State Fair director and members of the board held 17 town hall meetings across the state to gather public input on the fair. Folks were asked what they cherished most about the fair and where they see the biggest need for improvement, among other questions.

As a result of this feedback, the committee will introduce a bill in the upcoming 2018 legislative session that aims to create a new, restructured fair board. The ultimate intent of this legislation is to broaden the board’s oversight and handling of both the grounds and the event itself, while also diversifying the interests involved. It is hoped that this restructuring will make the fair more efficient at bringing in revenue during the 50 weeks out of the year that the State Fair is not being held.

Under current statute, theState Fair Board, whose members are appointed by members of the Board of Agriculture, functions in an advisory role only. The 10 appointed members make recommendations to the state’s Board of Agriculture, which then makes the ultimate decision as to whether or not to adopt rules or policies that have been proposed by the fair board. During the State Fair, board members diligently assist in the day-to-day oversight of the fair, helping to take tickets, directing traffic and assisting fair-goers and participants in any way they can. The ultimate responsibility of supervising and overseeing the fair is handled by the director of the Department of Agriculture.

Current law requires that seven of the members be appointed from each of the seven board appointment districts around the state and that those members work in the agriculture industry. The other three positions are appointed by the Converse County Commissioners, the dean of the University of Wyoming’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Wyoming Vocational Agriculture Teachers Association (WVATA).

If the proposed legislation passes, it would expand the State Fair Board from 10 members to 15. Furthermore, the governor, rather than the Board of Agriculture, would appoint the members from the seven appointment districts. The governor would also be tasked with appointing members to fill four of the five additional seats that would be added to the restructured board. It would be required that these be filled by one member from each of the following – the Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources, the Wyoming Business Council, a member of or representative of the Wyoming Tourism Board and a member involved in the energy industry. The fifth additional position would be filled by the director of the Department of Agriculture. The existing positions appointed by the Converse County commissioners, the dean of the College of Agriculture and representation from the WVATA would remain the same.

Aside from expanding the board to include a more diverse array of members, the recreated board would have more direct oversight power and duties. Rather than merely serving in an advisory role to the Board of Agriculture, the State Fair Board would be tasked with directly providing for the year-round maintenance and operation of the grounds in a way that maximizes revenue without disrupting the State Fair itself. In other words, the board would strive to bring in more events to the grounds throughout the year so the facilities would be better utilized, while simultaneously boosting revenue. The board would also appoint, with the approval of the governor, the State Fairgrounds manager while having the option to make hiring decisions for additional grounds personnel. Furthermore, the board would have direct oversight and approval of the annual budget for the State Fair itself.

In addition to recreating the State Fair Board, the bill would require that the Wyoming Board of Tourism actively promote the State Fair throughout the state and adjoining states.

This legislation is being proposed with the intent of maximizing revenue from the State Fair and its grounds. It is hoped that a State Fair Board with a more diverse mix of business and economic interests will work to not only enhance the fair itself but also bring in more events to the grounds throughout the rest of the year.

Together, these two goals aim to make the State Fair more efficient in bringing in revenue. Hopefully, in the near future, the fair will not have to rely so heavily on funding from the state and instead can be more self-sufficient, running off money generated by bringing more money to the facilities themselves.

If this proposed legislation is passed, it will be a big step toward ensuring the State Fair will continue to display the rich western heritage of Wyoming for generations to come.

This guest editorial reflects the bill as it was approved by the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee. As it moves through the legislative process, the bill may be amended. Visit wyoleg.gov for the latest information.