Listen Reporter Elizabeth Dunbar discusses this story with Morning Edition's Phil Picardi
Aug 23, 2011
The sheep and cattle barns at the Steele County Free Fair are pleading for an upgrade: They have holes and rust, and one even succumbed to a heavy snow two winters ago, forcing fair officials to put up a temporary tent to house a few dozen sheep.
Fair Manager Elmer Reseland has been looking for money to replace seven of the fair's 50-year-old barns, and he said new Legacy Amendment funding being dedicated to county fairs could be part of the solution.
"If we have Legacy grants it will allow us to use our regular revenue for other things, like just mowing the grass. Somebody's got to pay for that," Reseland said.
Money from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund is expected to reach all 95 county fairs within the next year. The Legislature this year directed $2.8 million of the special sales tax revenues to county fairs for the next two years.
County fairs weren't specifically included in the first two years of funding for the Legacy Amendment, which voters approved in 2008.
Half of the money will be distributed in equal amounts to each fair to "enhance arts access and education and to preserve and promote Minnesota's history and cultural heritage." The other half will go to a competitive grant program for county fairs that can be used to build or upgrade facilities and boost programming.
The fair grants raised some questions as the Legislature debated the Legacy bill in May.
During the debate, Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, asked her colleagues if facilities upgrades at county fairs were really what voters had in mind when they approved the amendment in 2008. The new 3/8-cent sales tax goes to the outdoors, clean water, parks and trails and arts and culture.
"Constructing buildings was never part of that," Loeffler said in an interview. "It seems to me a very expensive, and a very slippery slope, if we start going into capital improvements, particularly if the first crack in that dike is fair improvements — structures used maybe a week out of the year."
Loeffler acknowledged that Legacy money has already been spent on building improvements and upgrades, but she said those buildings had historical significance. For example, the former Grain Belt brewery in northeast Minneapolis, which is now an office building, received $175,000 in the last two years to keep its basement dry, install drain tile and regrade window well slopes. The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The livestock barns at the Steele County Free Fair certainly aren't on the register, but Reseland said the barns, grandstand, performance stages and fine arts building all provide space for activities that have a big impact on the area.
"It's a true melting of culture and of community, and that's worth something," said Reseland, who will soon retire after 17 years as fair manager.
The Steele County Free Fair is the state's largest county fair, attracting about 285,000 visitors last year. Reseland points to his fair's art competition, puppet shows for kids and performance stages where musicians provide entertainment as examples of arts and culture.
On a weekday afternoon during the fair last week, a few dozen children and their parents attended a puppet show while the Ray Sands Combo played the "Beer and Pretzels" polka before an audience of mostly seniors. Elsewhere, a steady trickle of visitors browsed the fair's art competition.
But Reseland acknowledged that agriculture is a main fair attraction, with more than 2,000 animals being shown this year. Agriculture is a big part of Minnesota's cultural heritage and is also deserving of Legacy money, he said.
"Back when Minnesota was a territory the Legislature passed rules saying every county should have a fair to exchange agricultural knowledge," he said.
Reseland said one of the biggest agriculture competitions in the county was once butter. Nowadays, homemade beer is one of the biggest agriculture competitions, he said.
"The fair has to adjust to the culture of the day," he said.
In the sheep tent, Justin Krell of Blooming Prairie, agreed that Legacy grant money to help build a barn would be a good use of taxpayer money.
"This is the way the story is told about the Minnesota economy being largely based on agriculture," said Krell, 21, who has been showing sheep at the fair since he was 6 or 7.
The Legacy money for county fairs will flow through the Department of Agriculture, which has hired someone to administer the program. Details on which projects will be eligible haven't been worked out yet, department spokesman Mike Schommer said.
The Legislature left the possibilities wide open, saying the county fair competitive grants could be used for "the development or enhancement of county fair facilities or other projects or programs that provide access to the arts, arts education, or agricultural, historical, and cultural heritage programs."
Steele County isn't the only fair looking to replace or repair fairgrounds buildings with Legacy money. The Anoka County Fair needs to replace some of its 80-year-old barns, and the Crow Wing County Fair wants to join the youth and fine arts buildings, repair a log house and make improvements to the grandstand.
But Danny Grunhovd, president of the Minnesota Federation of County Fairs, said he doubts livestock barns will get the Legacy money, unless they're incorporated with a history center or other educational project.
"I think it should be more of the arts and performing stages and cultural activities. And of course heritage, too — there's a lot of history out there," he said.
Because many fairs don't receive as much county funding as they used to, the availability of Legacy dollars is good news for county fairs whose buildings and display areas have fallen by the wayside, Grunhovd said. He said thousands of Minnesotans are exposed to arts and culture at county fairs.
"For rural county fairs especially, they're probably the biggest event for arts and culture in the county during the year," he said.
Minnesota Public Radio received $2.65 million in Legacy funds over the last two years and is eligible to compete for $5.3 million in public radio competitive grants in the next two years.