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Published: Friday, 7/17/2009

New budget sparks worry for Ohio State Fair future


COLUMBUS - A provision in the new state budget that requires the Ohio Expositions Commission to kick in $1.7 million of its revenue has commissioners worried about the effect on next year's Ohio State Fair.

Though the state fair essentially pays for itself, $1.7 million represents about 13 percent of its $13.3 million budget.

"We're going to have to figure out how to survive," General Manager Virgil Strickler said at a fair board meeting yesterday.

He said no changes are expected for this year's fair, which opens its 12-day run July 29.

The commission doesn't receive state money for operating expenses but relies on revenue generated by the fair and other events.

Under the budget provision, the commission could ask the State Controlling Board to allocate the $1.7 million for specific projects.

Doug Smalley, the commission's financial director, said he's still awaiting directions from state budget officials on how to handle what he described as a cut in "our spending authority from the operating fund."

Commissioners described it differently.

"They're going to take our money," Chairman Lee Smith said.

The state stopped subsidizing the fair's operating expenses more than a decade ago but does provide money for capital improvements and for the Junior Fair.

The Junior Fair allocation has been cut in recent years and will be slashed by nearly a third in the new budget, from $360,000 to $252,000. That money pays for animal and other youth competitions, the band and choir, and awards.

The allocation has been as high as $500,000 in recent years.

Mr. Smith warned that the budget situation could get worse before it gets better.

The commission did not raise ticket prices for this year's fair but did increase fees for camping and nonfair parking.

"We need to be proactive and not complacent, and we're going to have to look at income generators as soon as the fair ends," Mr. Smith said.

Last year, the fair was $300,000 in the black, the first time it made money since 2004. But because its financial success relies so heavily on good weather, the fair makes money only about every four years, Mr. Strickler said.

Staff members in the Senate and House could not immediately explain yesterday why the commission has been asked to send $1.7 million to state coffers. The provision was added to the Senate version of the budget and then approved by the House and Senate.

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