The Elkhart County 4-H Fair’s radio ads call it the best family entertainment bargain in the county, but is it?
After buying $6 admission tickets, $18 ride wristbands (those are advance purchase discount prices that rise to $8 and $22 at the door), a family with two adults and two children over 9 will spend $60 – and they haven’t even eaten yet. Depending on how many corn dogs or elephant ears they consume, or games they play, that price tag could start approaching $100 for the day.
"It’s really hard to bring a family to the fair because it costs so much money... it’s very expensive," said Jodie Worland, of Goshen. "The cost of the wristband is a lot of money, and put on top of that the food and stuff, it’s very costly."
Worland said that Friday, July 18, on the fair’s opening day, as she stood in line to buy wristbands for her 11-year-old daughter Sara and Sara’s friend, Brianna. The rides were about to start up at 1 p.m., and the girls were clearly excited.
"It’s summertime,” Worland said. “The kids need something to do, it’s a fun activity for them to do. I have a pre-teen. What else are they going to do? Their friends all come to the fair. And it is different than going to a big amusement park, where you have to pay $45, $50 to get in and travel three hours to get to. Still costly, either way you cut it.“
Last year the fair netted more than $417,000 for 4-H, according to federal tax forms the nonprofit organization files each year. That was up 35 percent from the $309,831 the fair cleared in 2012 after expenses. Revenues last year topped $2 million, climbing from about $1.76 million in 2010, $1.87 million in 2011 and $1.87 million in 2012.
Expenses also rise each year, hitting a record $1.59 million last year, which was up from $1.56 million in 2012, $1.46 million in 2011 and $1.33 million in 2010.
In particular, the cost of grandstand entertainment keeps climbing. That cost the organization $511,767 last year, up from $489,108 in 2012, $472,581 in 2011 and $448,246 in 2010.
Some of the fair’s net proceeds help fund the group’s mission of educating youth about agribusiness.
Over the past eight months, Elkhart County 4-H has embarked on several projects to improve the fair experience. It built two restroom facilities; created permanent tram routes and guest roadways; put up an emergency public address system; changed the gate entrance for grandstand entertainment; renovated grandstand wing seating, adding 1,000 seats; resurfaced Rotary Drive and installed a permanent misting station.
The board approved $1.2 million for the work, but the bids for most of it have come in under budget, said Jill Garris, one of four directors at large and chair of the fundraising committee.
"We hope it really enhances their experiences,” Garris said. “We know traffic flow, parking and restrooms have always been a big challenge.”
According to the International Association of Fairs, Festivals and Expositions, Elkhart’s 4-H fair is the nation’s second largest. Last year it drew an estimated 280,175 people.
Robert and Amber Revoir, of Goshen, have been bringing their two sons and daughter to the fair for the past seven years. They think it’s worth the cost, but they plan ahead for it.
"It’s something that we put into the budget for the summer," Robert said. "We have certain things that we budget for the summer, like going to the beach, we go camping. We have certain budgets for the movies. So it depends on what certain families want to put in their budgets."
The Revoirs typically come two or three days, but only ride the rides one day. Another day they might play games, walk around, meet with friends, eat some fair food or see the animals.
"Some things are expensive, but as long as you budget it in, it can be a day for everybody,” Robert said. “It’s kind of like playing the lottery. You wouldn’t want to play the lottery every day if you want to buy groceries.”