Despite the stumbling blocks of the SDSU Extension reorganization, a struggling economy and the drought, South Dakota State Fair organizers still expect the recent trend of increases in attendance, revenue and 4-H exhibits to continue at the five-day 127th edition of the event from Aug. 30 through Sept. 3 in Huron.
Peter Nielson, assistant director of 4-H/Youth Development in South Dakota, is expecting the almost 9,000 state 4-H members to exhibit 14,000 to 15,000 entries at the fair this year, matching the trend of steady or slightly increased entries in recent years.
“With the Extension reorganization, the economy and the drought, there’s no way to tell, but so far, livestock numbers at county fairs across the state have been up this year,” Nielson said.
Photography exhibits with all of the new technology “have exploded” in the past few years and are a big contributor to increases in exhibit numbers, he said.
As far as the Extension revamping completed last year, there are fewer agents in the counties to help more regularly with fairs and 4-H groups.
But although it’s been a little difficult and different, Nielson said, “The overarching theme has been that everybody is stepping up.”
“Volunteers have worked harder, leaders have worked harder, kids have worked harder and, of course, our 4-H youth advisers have worked harder. Although the former agronomists, community development and livestock educators are not there, I think there is more dedication per capita in our South Dakota counties,” Nielson said.
He said some of the 4-H youth advisers through Extension have as many as four counties to cover.
“We are taking some lumps, and with some having those extra counties, they obviously can’t do it all. Our kids and staff are judged on the success of the South Dakota State Fair. We have had three great years of growth, and great things have happened. I would encourage folks to come out and see the learning and education concepts that these kids learn through the 4-H program,” he said.
Nielson said the key to the future of the reorganization is how advisers engage and network with volunteers who can take over the detail work often done in the past by paid office staff so they have more time to work with the 4-H members and volunteers on other needs.
More city young people also are becoming involved in 4-H.
“We get more and more every day,” he said.
Some of those kids are involved in one of Nielson’s new favorite parts of the fair – the beef, sheep, swine and dairy skillathons. The competitions are not only for 4-Hers who show livestock, but for others who have gained skills and knowledge about the livestock industries and who can show off their knowledge in the events.
Also at this year’s fair will be the kickoff of the building of a new 4-H Clover Hall on the grounds. The last day of the fair is called “Breaking Bricks Day” on which, at 11:02 a.m., a “demolition ceremony” will be held for the beginning of construction on the 4-H Stage (see story inside).
The new Clover Hall project is one of many improvements planned for this year and next year as the fair works to keep its string of successes in attendance and revenue growing.
Fair manager Jerome Hertel is aiming to break the 200,000-person attendance mark this year, something that hasn’t been accomplished since 2004 when the fair ran eight days.
Last year, attendance was 191,158, an 8 percent increase over 2010 and a 27 percent boost from 2007.
Besides the drought and economy, Hertel said the fair is a lot like farming. “It depends on the weather,” he said.
A day of rain can lower attendance and drop revenue by $70,000 to $100,000.
However, it’s not only been the attendance that has been growing the past five years. The carnival had a 15 percent spike in revenue last year, with gate revenue up 6 percent, state fair sponsorships up 8 percent, commercial vending gross sales up 11 percent and camping revenue up 5 percent with an increase of 7 percent in the number of campers.
The campground is one area slated for improvements in the coming year. Hertel said his organization is planning to add 65 new camping pedestals and a new restroom-comfort station in one of the campgrounds. That could help boost the fair attendance in the future as campers often stay more than one day. The fair already is sold out of camping spots for this year, except for those spots for campers with generators.
“We are full every year,” Hertel said, with 1,600 people expected to stay on the grounds.
Other projects planned, thanks to an effort by the Legislature to help through its maintenance and repair budget, include a new roof on the Hippodrome, resealing of the grandstand to take care of water leakage problems and improvements to the entrance or gate houses.
The gate house project is expected to be completed this year, with the other projects starting this fall with completion by the 2013 fair.
“It addresses some of the safety and health issues and other things we need to do to grow the fair,” Hertel said.
The Legislature kept its fair subsidy at $268,000 this year, which remains down substantially from the $768,000 subsidy in 2008 when Hertel started at the fair. The subsidy has been falling steadily.
“We’ve not only managed to become a more efficient operation, but we also have increased attendance and revenue during that time period. We are healthy,” he said.