County releases fair revenues; fair board says there’s room for improvement

The Montana State Fair released its revenues last week and county officials said it was one of the better fairs.

The county’s fair advisory board painted a different picture during their Aug. 25 meeting that was not attended by commissioners or fair staff.

Commissioner Don Ryan stopped by to drop off financials but didn’t stay for the meeting. He told The Electric later that he’d been told he’d been exposed to COVID-19 so he didn’t want to attend a public meeting.

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During their July meeting, Ryan had told the board to give him feedback after the fair and the board was prepared to do so during their August meeting, Chair Leanne Hall said.

Since Ryan and no other county officials attended the meeting, the board discussed their fair feedback amongst themselves.

The financials provided to the board at the meeting only include revenues, as did what was released publicly, and no expenses.

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According to the Montana Expo Park staff, the fair generated $1.8 million in total revenues.

Commissioner Ryan said that the were still receiving invoices and bills for the fair and that the county would release the fair’s expenses in the near future.

“Rather than put out incomplete reports,” Ryan said, they just released revenues as “the best information we could put out without a bunch of corrections.”

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Ryan told The Electric, “we think the fair went very, very well” and that they didn’t get many complaints. “It was probably one of the best fairs.”

He said that the county doesn’t expect the fair to make an annual profit and that the county doesn’t get to count the revenues that come into local hotels, bars, restaurants, shops and more.

“That’s part of what the county fair does for the community,” Ryan said.

The financials provided to the fair board, indicated that the night shows made $481,134 in ticket revenue. The contract for the night shows was $496,060.

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The contracts for the ground entertainment totaled $51,250.

The Mighty Thomas Carnival grossed $872,254.

Under the contract between the carnival and Cascade County, the carnival agrees to pay the fair 35 percent of gross ride ticket sales, net of applicable sales taxes, up to $350,000 in sales; and 40 percent of those sales over $350,000, according to the contract. The carnival also agrees to pay 10 percent of ticket gross of up to two “extreme” rides and the designation of “extreme” will be mutually agreed upon by both parties, according to the contract.

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Using rudimentary math, the carnival would pay the county $122,254 for the 35 percent of ticket sales up to $350,000 and $208,901 on sales over that for a total of $331,401, but that’s not including calculations for 10 percent on ticket sales of any “extreme rides” or sales taxes since the county doesn’t have sales tax.

The county financials so that food vendors grossed $183,198, and according to Commissioner Don Ryan, they pay 21 percent to the county, which would be $38,471.

Susan Shannon, Expo Park manager, told The Electric in 2013 that the percentage has been 21 percent since the 2013 fair.

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The rodeo generated $67,285 in gate revenue for the four-day event, according to county financials.

In July 2019, the county commissioners approved an agreement with Sankey Pro Rodeo for the event. For the 2019 and 2020 seasons, the cost to the county is $65,375 annually and for the 2021-2023 seasons, the cost to the county is $66,300.

During their Aug. 25 meeting, the fair board said that they’d heard compliments about the rodeo and horse racing, but said expressed frustration about what they perceived as a gag order on the rodeo officials who were told they couldn’t talk to the press, but staff said they were too busy to do an interview when media arrived.

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Multiple fair board members said they had missed opportunities by not selling rodeo, horse racing or night show tickets at the gate to increase sales or better market the events going on each night.

Les Bruner, fair board member, said that concerts didn’t fill the arena and suggested restructuring the ticket packages to get more attendees, as well as better signage for concerts at the fairgrounds.

The ticket prices this year were set in the contract with Romeo Entertainment Group for the concerts acts.

“We need to fill those seats” since we’re already invested in the acts, Bruner said.

Cory Thompson, fair board member, said that the 2021 fair was a rebound year after COVID, but said he expected a bigger bump in attendance than the 3,965 gate attendance over the 2019 fair.

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He said the horse racing and rodeo were good events, but “overall lacking in general fair” for the exhibits and vendors and felt there was a “lackluster effort” put into that.

Thompson said there was confusion regarding the gate admission prices since they were advertised as $8 but with $1 off promos, but at the gate people were still charged $8.

The $7 online convenience fee for wristband sales was also concerning to him.

Fair board members said that John Hanschen of the Mighty Thomas Carnival told several of them that about two-thirds of wristbands sold are for the evening at the $32 price point, versus the $24 afternoon band.

The board has recommended a $30 all day wristband that they board argues would generate more revenue.

County Commissioners have said that they can’t dictate to the carnival how to run their business, though both commissioners and fair board members have said the carnival owners are open to changes.

Thompson said the fair needs more social media marketing, an improved website and to develop a smartphone app versus printing a hardcopy of the fair schedule.

He said new acts for the free stage and strolling acts would be beneficial.

Thompson said that when King and County was in town to the play the fair, they were the No. 2 or No. 3 Christian rock band in the U.S. and the attendance here was 1,836.

“We did not reach out to any of our churches,” Thompson said. “We’re missing the boat majorly in sales and marketing. We need to drastically make some changes,” to get fair attendance back to 2007 level of 153,000, he said.

Ticket revenue for the For King and Country concert was $100,085.

Ticket revenue for the other concerts was:

  • Big and Rich: $128,544
  • Terry Fator: $36,145
  • Travis Tritt: $100,840
  • Chevelle: $97,914
  • Kodi Lee: $16,606

Dan Miller, fair board member, said there were frustrations over Miss Rodeo with those participants being told they couldn’t have a trailer near the stage for wardrobe changes and that the fair’s marking director told the rodeo committee that the fair didn’t need to do marketing because it was the state fair.

“That’s the kind of thinking that lead K-Mart to no longer exist,” Miller said.

He said that he took friends to the rodeo this year who have lived in Great Falls since 1989 but hadn’t been to the fair in years.

Those friends said they noticed a lack of vendors and that it seemed dead and they were “wildly disappointed,” Miller said. “I’m frustrated that we can’t seem to get ways to change that.”

He said that the rodeo is one of the best in the state, but there are ways to improve and since it’s not a tour event, that affects their ability to get top riders. He said options could include increasing the purse to draw top tier riders and more riders to the Great Falls event.

The board also expressed frustration with two of their positions terming out and no indication from the commissioners on when, or if, they’d make appointments.

There’s been discussion from the commission about rewriting the fair board’s job description.

Commissioner Don Ryan told The Electric that they “don’t want the fair board to be co-managers” and that the board’s role is too broad currently regarding financials.

He said that they’d never had a fair board get so into the details and they don’t want a fair board micromanaging the fair manager, “because she’s doing a good job. We’re satisfied with that.”

Ryan said they haven’t filled the board seats that have expired yet because they may rewrite or restructure the board.

He said he’s working with the fair board and the county fair staff.

“There’s a communication gap and fences to be mended,” he said.