ELKHORN — The first 169 Walworth County Fairs have been without beer, and it will probably remain that way for the 170th fair next summer.
But financial difficulties confronting the county fair organization have prompted some to raise the possibility of introducing beer sales as a strategy for generating new revenue.
County Fair Board Chairman Bill Thompson said last year’s county fair was troubled by poor weather conditions, contributing to a budget deficit currently estimated at $188,000.
Beer sales could help solve the financial issues, Thompson said, although he recognizes that such a break with tradition would not be popular in some circles.
“I think there’s a pretty strong feeling against it,” he said. “For the foreseeable future, I don’t see it happening. Down the road? Who knows?”
The question of serving beer at what has always been a “dry” county fair came up Dec. 11 at the annual fair board meeting, raising the hackles of some who want to see the event stay dry.
The annual meeting is open to anyone who has purchased a lifetime county fair membership or who purchased an annual pass last year. The meeting is held to elect new board members and to discuss other business related to the fair.
With about 100 people present for the Dec. 11 gathering, an advisory vote on the question of selling beer showed a strong sentiment for not going down that road.
Gary Wallem of Elkhorn, a lifetime county fair member, said the fair board is not thinking hard enough about other ways of raising funds.
“They think that beer is the savior of the fair,” Wallem said. “We don’t need it. We’ve gone this long without it.”
The fair board is a private organization, also known as the Walworth County Agricultural Society, which started the fair in 1850. The fair is held every summer on the estimated 100-acre fairgrounds in Elkhorn.
Fair manager Larry Gaffey said he recognizes that nobody on the current 13-member board supports introducing beer to the fair. But the board may run out of alternatives.
With the $188,000 deficit, finding a way to balance costs with income is difficult, Gaffey said.
“Trying to keep the fair affordable for families is a continuing challenge,” he said.
The fair is supported by ticket sales, special events and concession rentals during the fair, as well as special events held throughout the year, including flea markets, concerts and other festivals. This past summer featured Rib Fest and Mole Fest.
The fairgrounds has a liquor license, and beer is served at many other events held there. But those events do not always pay off.
Not unlike the fair itself, Mole Fest ran into inclement weather and was “not a win” for the county fair, Gaffey said.
Two Walworth County Board members, Charlene Staples and Sue Pruessing, attended the Dec. 11 annual meeting, and both expressed opposition to beer sales at the county fair.
Staples said the county fair and its decision whether to sell beer affects a “good chunk” of the county. Noting that the county board has helped finance capital projects for the fair, Staples said fair board members should be sensitive toward the opinions of county residents.
“Among the people I talk to, most say keep the alcohol out of the fair,” she said.
Pruessing said those proposing to allow beer at the fair should show how beer sales would improve the fair’s financial bottom line.
“Is it strictly money? And if it is, where are the figures?” she asked.
Wallem said selling beer at the fair would involve the cost of setting up an appropriate area for beer sales, checking IDs and providing security.
While it is OK to sell beer during other events on the fairgrounds, Wallem said, “For the six days of the fair, it should not be.”
John Mancusi of Delavan, another participant at the annual meeting, said the county fair is intended to be family-friendly, and that selling beer would go against that tradition.
Mancusi said he does not believe the fair needs to go to beer sales.
“It’s low-hanging fruit; it’s an easy way to go,” he said. “It’s just bad policy.”