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Analysis: State fairs heavy in the red, run by political cronies

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST
Caption
(AP)
Illinois Department of Agriculture contractor Don Davis helps put up a banner at the fairgrounds July 30 for the opening of the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. The annual agricultural extravaganza runs Thursday through Aug. 17.

SPRINGFIELD – The longtime directors of both Illinois State Fair and the DuQuoin State Fair have a lot in common.

Both were disciplined recently for unethical conduct, both have operated their event at a financial loss, and both came from political backgrounds with no professional experience in managing fairs before taking their jobs with the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

Amy Bliefnick, director of the Illinois State Fair, receives a salary of $90,408. John Rednour Jr. left his $91,200 position managing the DuQuoin State Fair in January. In addition to her salary, Bliefnick is provided a house on the fairgrounds where she can live.

While recent media attention has focused on the pairs’ ethical transgressions in accepting gifts from fair vendors, little attention has been paid to how they – or their predecessors – received their jobs in the first place.

The two state fairs, which have lost $71.2 million over the past 20 years, have long been a bastion of patronage.

“George Ryan appointed me State Fair director as a reward for the help I gave him in getting elected,” said Harold “Bud” Ford, who was in charge of the fair before Bliefnick.

“I worked on his campaign and helped George carry 25 counties in northern Illinois. I let him know that the only position in the administration I was interested in was heading the State Fair.”

Before that, Ford was an unsuccessful legislative candidate on the Republican ticket and a Moline police officer.

Bliefnick was appointed state fair manager by Gov. Rod Blagojevich after she made an unsuccessful race as a Democrat for the Legislature.

Gov. Pat Quinn has allowed her to continue in that role although she was suspended for 2 days this year for violating state ethics laws by accepting free beer tent tickets from a State Fair vendor. She also was fined $1,000 this week by the executive ethics board. 

She told Illinois News Network she had made a mistake and the tickets were used for promotional purposes only. 

Bliefnick is hardly the first fair manager to come from a political background. 

Gov. Jim Edgar appointed Bud Hall to be State Fair director. Hall was the brother of a state senator, a frequent tennis partner of Edgar’s, and campaign volunteer for the governor’s campaigns. 

“Illinois and New York stand out because those are the two states where people from political backgrounds tend to get appointed to run state fairs,” said Marla Calico, chief operating officer of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions. 

Calico said the trend in fair management is to appoint people from backgrounds other than politics.

“If you look at managers who are involved with fairs today, they come from a wide variety of backgrounds,” she said. “They may come from facilities management. They may come from an agricultural background. They may have grown up in the business.”

Errol McKoy, who managed the State Fair of Texas for 26 years, routinely ended each year $8 million to $9 million in the black. Before that, he was an executive with Six Flags Entertainment Corp. He retired this year as a fair manager.

“These managers who come from backgrounds managing athletic facilities or entertainment venues or, in my case, amusement parks have a real advantage over other managers,” McKoy said. “It is hard for someone to get up to speed if their background is in something unrelated – like retail. And it’s got to be tough when the manager is always changing when a new governor is elected.” 

Unlike Illinois, the Texas fair is not a part of state government.

“We are a nonprofit,” McKoy said. “We pay for everything out our own pocketbook. We don’t get a subsidy from anyone. Losing money is not an option for us.”  

All profits generated by the Texas fair are plowed back into improvements in the fairgrounds, which for most of the year functions as a Dallas park. The fair pays $1.2 million a year in rent to the city, McKoy said.

The work experience of former DuQuoin State Fair director Rednour was much different from McKoy’s when he took the helm of the state fair in southern Illinois.

“I got the job because I helped Rod Blagojevich get elected,” Rednour said. “I was the Perry County [Democratic] chair. My dad campaigned for Rod, too. And the person who had the job before me helped Ryan get elected, and before that it was an Edgar person. But that’s OK. You want a state fair director who reflects the thinking of the governor.”

Before becoming fair director, Rednour was a local liaison for the Illinois comptroller. His father had been a political powerbroker in southern Illinois.   

Rednour acknowledges that his fair ran a deficit each year during his 8-year tenure.

“This is an area that has double-digit unemployment,” he said. “Parents can’t afford to take their kids to Disney World. If you live in Metropolis, it takes 5 hours to drive to the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. This provides those children with an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

The intent of reforms the Legislature passed in 1993 was for Illinois’ two state fairs to be self-sustaining, said Mike Lawrence, a former senior adviser and Edgar press secretary.

That hasn’t been the case. 

Between 1993 and 2013, the Illinois State Fair lost $55.9 million and the DuQuoin State fair lost $15.3 million, according to data obtained by Illinois News Network from the auditor general’s office. Neither fair had a single year where it broke even.

Bliefnick, who has been State Fair manager for 10 years, said she wasn’t certain that the fair could operate in the black. But it provides a terrific experience for visitors from across the state, she added.

McKoy said his experience has been quite different in Texas.

“When I started, the fair had four or five corporate sponsors and we were taking in $300,000 to $400,000 from them,” he said. “When I retired, the fair had 60 corporate sponsorships worth $6 million. … We offer a lot at the fair that appeals to an urban audience as well as a rural one.”

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