Three southeastern Wisconsin county fairs credit beer sales with helping them cover their costs, while a fourth county fair has decided to raise ticket prices so it can avoid beer sales.
The Kenosha, Racine and Waukesha county fairs all report that they allow beer sales on their grounds during the fair, and that those sales help their bottom lines.
Fair officials say the sale of beer and wine adds to their patrons’ enjoyment of the fair, with no alcohol-related incidents reported by their security. All three fairs hire off-duty county sheriff deputies to provide security.
Waukesha County Fair Chrissy Gluege said county fairs are in constant competition with a growing number of other summer season events that draw people away.
Beer and wine sales are an added enticement to bring in fair goers.
“It’s the nature of the beast for outdoor events,” Gluege said. “People are finding other ways to spend their money.”
The Walworth County Fair had a tough year financially in 2018.
The fair budget took a $188,000 loss because of bad weather, both during the county fair and during another event.
The financial troubles are prompting some to raise the possibility of introducing beer sales as a way of generating new revenue for the county fair organization. The move has also drawn strong opposition from others who want to maintain the tradition of a county fair that has been “dry” throughout its 170-year history.
Walworth County Fair manager Larry Gaffey expects the issue of beer sales could come up again.
Gleuge said beer and wine coolers have been sold at the Waukesha County Fair for nearly 30 years. The fair averages about 120,000 visitors a year.
Gluege would not divulge revenue figures, but she said alcoholic beverage sales account for approximately 10 to 12 percent of the fair income each year.
Alcohol sales are an important part of the fair’s income because the county fair rents the county-owned Waukesha County Expo Grounds for its five-day run each July.
Denise Zirbel, manager of the Kenosha County Fair for four years, said the fair has had beer sales as far back as she can remember.
Miller Lite sponsors the Kenosha County Fair’s Creekside Stage.
Beer sales have had “a positive impact on the bottom line” at the Kenosha County Fair, Zirbel said, adding that while she could not divulge details, the fair reported a profit this year.
The Kenosha fair added a beer and wine garden called the Beer and Wine Barrel.
“The addition of the Barrel gives us a nice boost,” she said.
While there are only two locations on the fairgrounds where patrons can buy beer or wine, patrons can take their beer and wine out onto the fairgrounds.
“We actually allow visitors to walk around the grounds with their beer,” Zirbel said, because allowing patrons to walk around spreads out the beer-drinking population.
“When you pen people up who have been drinking, you increase the risk of trouble,” she said. “We’ve had no alcohol-related incidents.”
Beer sales are also integral to the Racine County Fair and its finances, said Scott Gunderson, a member of the Racine County Fair board.
Alcohol has been served at the Racine fair for about 20 years. Beer sales are conducted in a fenced-in area with indoor and outdoor seating and live music.
“It’s a very well attended area,” Gunderson said.
The fair also sells beer in its grandstand during shows, but patrons are not allowed to walk around the grounds with their beer, he said.
Like the Kenosha fair, the Racine fair this year added a Craft Beer and Wine Garden. He said the fair is seeing more people enjoying themselves at the beer and wine venues.
“We feel it doesn’t hurt a person’s enjoyment of the fair,” he said.
Gunderson said he would encourage other fair organizers to consider introducing beer or wine sales to their events.
“In the end, the extra money is an important thing to help the fair in the present and the future,” he said.
The Rock County Fair, like Walworth County, has endured financial troubles without introducing alcoholic beverages to its event.
Rock County Fair manager Randy Thompson said the fair is financed almost solely by ticket sales.
Thompson said he was asked to become board president four years ago to turn around the fair’s flagging finances. In the two years before he took over, the fair lost $80,000 and $50,000.
Rock County Fair income is constrained by a variety of factors. The fairgrounds are owned by Rock County, so beer and wine sold on the grounds during other events benefits the county.
The fairgrounds are also within a residential neighborhood in Janesville. The fair does not have its own parking area. A local church provides parking during the fair, but parking proceeds go to the church, not the fair.
Beer sales were considered by the fair board, but the push-back among residents was strong enough that the board decided to follow a different path.
“Change is difficult for a lot of people, and there’s a lot of tradition involved with the fair,” Thompson said.
The Rock County Fair, which draws between 70,000 and 80,000 visitors a year, is a 4-H and FFA fair, which focuses on youth competitions and programs. Thompson said some on the fair board and in the community hold that the sale of beer during the fair is not in line with the fair’s dedication to youth.
Thompson said the fair board decided to turn around its finances in other ways.
“What we did is tighten our belt,” he said.
Once known for bringing in national talent, the fair cut its entertainment budget almost in half and turned its efforts toward hiring up-and-coming talent for its grandstand shows.
Organizers also raised admission ticket prices from $8 to $10 for the fair.
In his first year as board president, the fair was $7,000 in the black. The second year, it was $18,000 to the good. In 2018, the fair saw a positive balance of $35,000.
Beer sales were not necessary for the Rock County Fair to turn its losses around, Thompson said.
By raising ticket prices slightly and cutting its entertainment budget, the fair stopped its financial troubles.
“We’ve righted the ship,” Thompson said.