Historic move expected to help reduce revenue shortfall

By Kellen Olshefski

Correspondent

In a historic move for the Walworth County Fair – which has been a dry event for the past 170 years – the City of Elkhorn Common Council voted 4-2 in favor of approving temporary Class B wine and beer licenses for this year’s fair at its meeting Monday.

The council also stipulated alcohol sales and consumption will be restricted to the grandstand and horse track areas, and is limited during the hours of 4 to 9:30 p.m.

Aldermen Scott McClory and Karel Young voted against approving the liquor license.

In a public comment session at the beginning of the meeting, citizens on both sides of the issue voiced their opinions. Some supported approving the liquor licenses while those opposed shared concerns over problems alcohol might bring.

There were also sentiments about the fair having been alcohol-free for its entire existence, which has set a positive reputation for the fair. Among suggestions made as other means for the Walworth County Agricultural Society to seek for raising funds was charging an entry fee for Ribfest, another event held at the fairgrounds that has grown to four days and draws thousands of people each year.

Supporters argued on Monday that the additional revenue from alcohol sales could help the fair in a year that’s likely to see lower attendance, the fairgrounds has a proven positive record with alcohol at other events – such as Rock the Barns and Ribfest – and that alcohol sales have not been an overwhelmingly negative aspect of other fairs, including the Wisconsin State Fair.

In speaking to the council following public comments, Walworth County Agricultural Society President Bill Thompson said the request is solely financial-based, noting that the flooding two years ago already destroyed monetary reserves and the fair is fast-approaching $200,000 in lost revenue for 2020 with other events, such as the Antique Flea Market and horse shows, being canceled in the wake of COVID-19.

“We’re just getting into the heart of other events here in July, August and September, where we may lose quite a bit more from some of those not occurring,” Thompson said, adding the organization could be looking at $500,000 in losses before year’s end.

“It isn’t that we want to sell beer, it’s that we need to sell beer,” he said.

Thompson said they don’t expect beer sales to cover all losses but believe it will help to cover some of them.

“We just don’t see any avenue of having a fair if we don’t have that additional revenue,” Thompson said.

Alderman Tom Myrin, who had asked for the application to be reconsidered by the council, said he does not support allowing alcohol throughout the fairgrounds, only at the grandstand and horse track areas, and asked what the estimated sales could be.

Walworth County Fairgrounds Manager Larry Gaffey said after reviewing financials and beer revenue from every fair in Wisconsin and comparing it with attendance, other fairs of similar size have brought in $90,000 in beer sales alone.

With the average attendance overall at the Walworth County Fair being around 130,000 to 140,000, McClory suggested bumping the ticket price up by a dollar or two per person just for the 2020 fair, which would help make up nearly $250,000 in revenue.

“I think a lot of people are still going to come to the fair if you tell them, this is one time only it’s going to be a buck or two more per person and we’re going to remain a dry fair,” McClory said, adding that upwards of 90% of constituents do not want alcohol at the fair.

“This past week I have had two people tell me they want to have alcohol, and I’ve had at least 25 people contact me saying, ‘Do not let alcohol come into the fair at any cost, not for these amount of hours, not for this type of location,’” McClory said.

“Those people have to leave the grandstand at some point and come mingle with other people. They have to get in their cars and drive away. I need to support those constituents, and I am not going to vote in favor of this,” he added.

Alderman Ron Dunwiddie echoed McClory’s statement, noting similar responses from constituents within his district and said he was not in favor of the sale of alcohol at the fair.

While Alderman Tim Shiroda admitted he was on the fence, he noted the decision before the council was whether or not the Agricultural Society had met the requirements and qualified for a liquor license and whether or not the fair should sell alcohol was a business decision the society needed to make.

“I get the passion of the people for and against it, but most of the questions I heard should be to the fair board, not to us,” Shiroda said.

“The only question for this council for whether they get a permit or not is whether they qualify for it,” he said.

The motion to approve by Myrin, seconded by Alderman Frank Boggs, included stipulations that alcohol consumption be limited to the grandstands and horse track areas, and that City of Elkhorn Police Chief Joel Christensen review and approve of security procedures for the fair, once available.

The motion was approved 4-2, with Aldermen Myrin, Shiroda, Boggs and Dunwiddie voting in favor and Aldermen McClory and Young voting against.

 
 

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