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SALT LAKE CITY — A newly released audit of the Utah State Fair Corp. reveals a trend of lagging attendance and financial dependence on public subsidies, but fair organizers contend they’re working to resolve the problems.
The Office of the Utah State Auditor compared Utah’s annual state fair to similar fairs in Arizona, Idaho and New Mexico. State fairs in Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming were excluded because those events are held in rural areas far from the population centers.
“Utah State Fair is the most under-attended and highly subsidized state fair among comparable intermountain states,” performance audit director David Pulsipher said.
The findings show the Utah State Fair Corp. received an annual average of $757,000 from the state Legislature over the last decade. That amounts to a little more $6.8 million since 2004. Auditors also say the fair receives indirect subsidies in the form of a low-cost lease on the fair park lands in Salt Lake City.
In response, the audit suggests privatizing fair management, combining operations with the Salt Lake County Fair, increasing rentals of the fair park property or even selling the fair park outright.
“We believe that the results of the audit will greatly increase the self-sufficiency of the Utah State Fair Corp.,” Pulsipher said.
In their official response, fair managers contend they face challenges in competing for rental business on their 65-acre campus because of the aging condition of the facilities.
Utah State Fair is the most under-attended and highly subsidized state fair among comparable intermountain states... We believe that the results of the audit will greatly increase the self-sufficiency of the Utah State Fair Corp.
–Performance audit director David Pulsipher
“The facilities are antiquated and old. They need investment. Many of them are too small,” Utah State Fair Corp. executive director Michael Steele said. He also noted the fair park faces stiff competition when trying to lure exhibitors. “Since 1990 the state, cities and counties have invested $322 million in venues throughout the Wasatch Front that are prime rental spaces that compete with us for events.”
The audit notes state fair attendance peaked in 2008 with approximately 327,100 visitors. In 2013, the fair saw its lowest number of visitors in a decade.
“We had nine days of terrible weather and our revenue projections were down. I feel like the chips were kind of down and we had a shot taken at us,” Steele said.
The state audit also comes on the heels of another audit released last month by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General. (le.utah.gov/audit/14_ailr.pdf) That review slammed the Utah State Fair Corp., saying its operations did “not appear sustainable.” A third audit is underway now by the Utah Division of Facilities Construction and Management. On top of that, the Fair Park Corp. is conducting its own annual internal audit.
“Four audits in 60 days,” Steele said. “It has put things at a standstill, but we are who we are and will stand up and be accountable. We’re going to try and make this thing get better.”