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Fairpark, Utah State Fair face an uncertain future

Published: Tuesday, June 17 2014 5:09 p.m. MDT

Half of the roof on a building at the Utah State Fairpark is removed during renovation work in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 17, 2014.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Propped up by taxpayer subsidies and plagued by diminishing community participation, the Utah State Fairpark is facing an uncertain future, and with it the destiny of the state's largest single event.

More than 300,000 people attended last year's Utah State Fair, but it wasn't enough to reverse a more than five-year trend of declining numbers.

On Wednesday, faced with some tough questions about what do with the fair, the Fairpark property and how to make it all work, lawmakers will hear the latest in a master plan study that is tapping community input and feedback from other impacted groups.

The Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee is slated to meet at 9 a.m., when a progress report will be given on the study that is due to be completed by month's end.

One thing is clear: Early survey results show that a majority of community members want the fair to stay put, and they want the tradition to continue.

"It is tough to find someone who hates on the State Fair," said Michael Steele, executive director of the Utah State Fairpark. "It is a unique, fun event that is affordable."

At a community open house in May, the majority of residents who filled out feedback forms said they want the property at North Temple and 1000 West to remain the home of the state fair, not devoted to some other use. In an online survey, some 60 percent of participants said it was "very important" to keep the fair at its current location.

"It is a historic fairgrounds," said Utah Agriculture Commissioner LuAnn Adams. "The fair has been around for over 110 years. It is a tradition. It is a celebration. It is a history. … It brings families together, and it brings people together from all over the state."

For Giovana Willits, the Utah State Fairpark helps her children engage in a hobby and budding business — raising and showing rabbits — that keeps them grounded in nature and the simpler things in life.

"That is kind of why I got my kids involved," Willits said. "We started having them as pets. The kids are all just learning technology and spend (their time) being with other teenagers in the malls and and at each other's houses, not promoting any good. I thought how would it be to have a more natural way of living, to have more pets, to get away from some of that."

The Willits family will be bringing eight of their Holland lops to the Utah Rabbit Show on Saturday at the Utah State Fairpark, and they hope to walk away with some top prizes, maybe even a grand champion designation for one of their lops.

"I would think it is very important to have the state fair, and of course it is in our backyard so that makes it important," she said.

The problem is how to make the State Fair more profitable and efficient, and the Fairpark a more attractive year-round venue for a diversity of events that keeps a steady stream of money flowing. Last year, the fair spent $1.2 million more than it did in 2012, and several surrounding states draw more attendance at a lower cost than Utah.

Specific challenges at the Utah State Fairpark include the aging buildings and other infrastructure that have been neglected for years.

"The property just hasn't been maintained well," said Marilee Richins, spokeswoman for the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management. "It's spent years and years of being underfunded."

Richins said the study has three broad scenarios that are being explored: keeping the State Fair where it is and putting more money into the park to make it viable, developing the existing site and moving the fair elsewhere, or privatizing management of the property.

Ultimately the decision is in the hands of lawmakers who must wrestle with weighing the cultural value of a long-revered tradition and its home against the backdrop of a venue that is not profitable and occupying a prime piece of real estate.

"It is a society question," Steele said. "Do you want to have a state fair? The (agriculture) folks are a $17 billion business in the state, and this is the showplace for the agriculture community in the capital city of Utah. Is there a desire to keep a tradition that has been going on for over 110 years at this location?"

Willits said she believes having that "stage" for people to get back to their roots and nature is critical.

"Kids' ability to be on a social network takes away from the natural lifestyle of growing gardens, going to state fairs and going to carnivals," she said. "With all these electronics, families can grow apart. Getting involved with the bunnies, with animals, gives kids a sense of the old values instead of this crazy rat race where we live now."

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

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