Illinois Turns to Private Donors to Fix Fairgrounds

John O'Connor/Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) – Gov. Bruce Rauner put together a foundation last month to tap outside contributors for badly needed repairs to the state’s fairgrounds, marking another instance in which the Republican former venture capitalist says the private sector can help the financially strapped state.

But an Associated Press review of similar efforts shows that it will be far from a quick fix. Private foundations in other states consider themselves successful in raising at most around $4 million per year, while Illinois’ backlog of maintenance and repairs stands at nearly $200 million, according to the Rauner administration.

Even in Iowa, where 1 million regularly attend a storied state fair memorialized in a Broadway and movie musical, fundraisers boast that the fair’s foundation has collected $118 million over 23 years or about 60 percent of what Illinois needs to raise.

The newly appointed head of the Illinois State Fairgrounds Foundation, John Slayton, acknowledges the group has its work cut out for it, and isn’t promising miracles.

“It will take a long time to raise $180 million,” Slayton said, only slightly facetiously.

“The group wanted to get started,” said the Springfield banker, who for a quarter-century has been the Illinois fair’s auction manager. “There are projects out there deferred since the 1970s.”

The first challenge seems to be producing the to-do list. Despite the urgency with which Rauner established the foundation last month, neither his Agriculture Department nor Capital Development Board was able to provide the AP with a listing of necessary work within five business days as required by the Freedom of Information Act.

Recent reports have noted more than a dozen roofs at the Springfield site need immediate repair or replacement. The above-ground electrical system needs to be updated an underground grid failed in 2008, shuttering the facility. The DuQuoin grounds need grandstand improvements, a fire-alarm system and various safety improvements.

A beleaguered state budget is to blame for the backlog. Money has not been available for upkeep at the 165-year-old Springfield festival, which drew 412,000 people last year, or in DuQuoin, which began as a private affair in the 1920s and was purchased by the state in the mid-1980s.

The foundation idea is a natural for Rauner, who previously privatized some state economic-development functions.

Neighboring fair foundations have had varying degrees of success. IRS records show recent annual revenue totals ranging from $400,000 in Wisconsin and $500,000 in Indiana to $3.8 million in Minnesota and $4.7 million in Iowa.

Those are small funding groups, said Nathan Dietz, senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Center of Nonprofits and Philanthropy. But small and specialized mean more personal contact with die-hard constituencies, he said.

“Even though they don’t rely on the same sort of wide-ranging distribution of funding sources as the big charities do, they have pretty steady funding,” Dietz said.

According to the Giving USA Foundation, 2015 was a record year for American charity. Individuals gave $265 billion, a 3.8 percent increase over the previous year.

But Illinois lags in some respects. An Urban Institute state-by-state survey shows Illinois, with 6.1 million income tax returns in 2013, ranked fifth in the total amount of charitable contributions at $7.8 billion. But the average tax deduction was $3,866, 12 percent below the national average and 33rd among the states.

Another question for the newly formed Illinois foundation is whether its state fairs have the same brand appeal as their neighbors’. With a large geographic area and a major metropolitan area, Illinois’ fairs have more competition in terms of large, outdoor events.

That’s something fans of the Iowa fair don’t lose sleep over.

“A lot of times, it’s the end-of-summer family reunion,” said Drew Norton, communications manager for the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation. “People keep coming back, and we have this foundation set up that is a way for fairgoers to contribute any amount.”

Minnesota hosted a record 1.9 million fairgoers this year. Illinois can take comfort in that the Minnesota State Fair Foundation began in 2002 facing $80 million to $100 million in backlogged capital projects, executive director Kay Cady said. Key to success is identifying specific projects in June it completed a $4 million program to build a history and heritage center and ensuring contributors know that every penny they give funds particular projects.

Even in tough economic times, people will step up to keep a state fair healthy, Cady said.

“In this day and age people need unity and celebration, and this fair brings that,” she said.

(TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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