It costs about $600,000 to $700,000 to operate the Williamson County fair each year. / Photo Matt Masters
By MATT BLOIS
The Williamson County fair is operated by a nonprofit organization, but the event is also a swirl of economic activity.
Thousands of people attended the 2019 fair, which ended on Saturday night.
The nonprofit Williamson County Fair Association, chaired by County Mayor Rodgers Anderson, spent about $683,000 to operate the fair in 2017 and about $788,000 in 2016 according to tax documents. Anderson said the organization didn’t have numbers for 2018 or the most recent fair.
Most of those costs are covered by ticket sales, sponsorships and income from ride tickets. In 2017, the fair raised about $277,000 through ticket sales, $221,000 from sponsorships and and additional $184,000 from rides.
A company from Augusta, Georgia called Drew Exposition provides rides on the Midway. The company shares a percentage of ticket sales for rides with the Williamson County Fair Association.
Vendors selling funnel cakes, fried pickles and lemonade pay the fair association for a space on the fair grounds. The fair association earned about $95,000 in booth rentals during 2017.
The fair brings in a lot of revenue — almost $750,000 in 2017 — but it also costs a lot to operate the fair.
“Everybody thinks you’re making a killing. It just doesn’t work that way,” Anderson said. “It just takes a lot of money to have the rides, the advertising.”
Fees for performers — such as the Xpogo stunt team or The Spoon Man at this year’s fair — make up a large chunk of the expenses. The fair association spent more than $130,000 on performers in 2017.
The fair association also pays Williamson County for use of Ag Expo Park. On its website, the fair association reports that it has also paid for nearly $180,000 in improvements to the park.
To keep costs down the fair also recruited about 2,200 volunteers this year to make the fair run.
Between 2014 and 2017 fair revenues always exceeded expenses. The organization reported surpluses between $30,000 and $100,000 for those years.
Anderson said the nonprofit always aims to end the year in the black, but the association also makes sure to give back to the community.
On Aug. 5, fairgoers could buy a ticket by donating food to GraceWorks. Anderson said the promotion yielded 14,000 pounds of food for the organization. The fair association also gives money back to public schools and offers scholarships for students going to college.
The biggest financial risk for a mostly outdoor fair like Williamson County’s is bad weather. Anderson said extreme heat, rain or lighting can keep people at home. This year’s fair started with three days of rain and lightning.
“The one thing that will eat your lunch, absolutely tear you apart, is the weather, which you have no control over,” he said. “If you have lightning within eight miles we shut her down. You can’t be riding rides with lighting.”
The fair association hasn’t studied the economic impact of the fair, but Anderson estimated that the fair represents millions of dollars in economic activity. He said the fair association hopes to carry out an economic impact study this year.
The Williamson County Fair is one of the larger fairs in the state measured by expenses, but several other fairs in Middle Tennessee are even larger.
The Tennessee State Fair, also operated by a nonprofit, is held in Nashville every September. In According to tax records, it cost about $1.1 million to operate the fair in 2017, and the organization lost about $100,000.
The Wilson County Fair is even larger. Its expenses topped $1.9 million in 2017. That fair also lost nearly $100,000 that year.
Considering the high cost of running a fair and the unpredictability of the weather, Anderson said he’s happy the Williamson County Fair Association can put on a fun event and cover its costs.
“Everything has a price. I can tell you that,” he said. “At the end of the day you want to be in the black, holding your expenses the best you can and charge accordingly. I think we do a good job of that.”