SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Fairpark had a record-breaking year of success after a running list of improvements, including its new $17 million rodeo arena.
And yet Fairpark leaders plan to go the Utah Legislature again for more money in 2019 — to the tune of about $550,000 — to keep the park on a path toward independent financial stability while it continues to tackle deferred maintenance.
"Even though we had a great year, I think we're one or two years away from being self-sustaining," said Larry Mullenax, the Fairpark's executive director.
Mullenax and Roger Beattie, chairman of the Fairpark's board of directors, reported to the State Fair Park Committee on Thursday highlighting a more than 10 percent increase in attendance during the 2018 State Fair, and gross revenue up more than $1.3 million from the previous year.
But in light of such a "banner year," Beattie said Fairpark leaders worry state leaders might get the impression that the park is ready to be financially independent.
"That right now would be a dangerous position for the state," Beattie warned.
Beattie said the park still needs to tackle deferred maintenance and a list of upgrades in coming years to maximize its potential for future financial health.
"At the end of the day, this is going to be something that the state of Utah can be proud of," Beattie said. "This is something that ought to stay here. It's our history. It's our heritage."
For the 2018 Utah State Fair, Mullenax reported more than 283,000 attended the fair — an increase of 10.6 percent over 2017.
Carnival ride revenue also exceeded "historical best," Mullenax said, and became one of only three fairs in the ride operator's history to exceed $1 million.
Net earnings for the Fairpark was up more than $537,000 over the prior year, Mullenax reported. The park's year-to-date gross revenue was more than $5.2 million in 2018, versus about $3.9 million in 2017.
"It wasn't easy to get those numbers," Mullenax told lawmakers. "There were a lot of sleepless nights."
Next year, Fairpark leaders hope to fund $256,000 more in improvements including $70,000 for new exterior siding on the guest services building, $20,000 for deferred maintenance on the entertainers' trailer, $25,000 for a ticket kiosk system, $43,000 for food trucks to service the arena, $36,000 to install heat in a barn, and $35,000 to expand the arena announcer's booth.
Lawmakers on Thursday's committee were supportive of Fairpark leaders' ask, though they did not make a formal motion to support the legislative request.
"Two years ago, our conversations were very different," Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, referencing talks that threw the park's future in question. "But look what two years can bring."Comment on this story
Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, praised Mullenax and Beattie for their work to put the Fairpark on a healthier track.
"I'll be honest … I thought it was crazy" to put more money into a failing park, Shultz said, crediting Fairpark leaders for helping "turn me around on that" and "laying out the vision and what was possible."
Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, said the Fairpark's story "will be a great story to share" with the Legislature's appropriations committee early next year, and offered his support to the $550,000 ask.