SPRINGFIELD -- Gov. Pat Quinn opened the 2011 Illinois State Fair Friday by defending the event as an investment in jobs, even if it costs the state millions of dollars a year.
The Democrat said the festival, which has lost an average of $3.8 million a year for the past decade, educates taxpayers about the state's leading industry, farming.
"This is an investment that pays great dividends," Quinn said after cutting the ribbon to open the event, celebrated almost every year since 1853.
"When you look at the mighty force of agriculture to our economy in Illinois, 40 percent of our jobs come from agriculture," the governor said. "It's important that we celebrate agriculture at least once a year."
The festival of cattle and hogs, music, carnival rides and food of about any size, shape and flavor cost taxpayers $34 million in red ink from 2001 to 2009. The (Springfield) State Journal-Register reported last week that the fair's 2009 loss of $2.8 million was about half what it lost in 2001, however.
Officials told the newspaper the costs include $2.4 million in annual upkeep of the fairgrounds and main buildings, which are a century old. The fair pumps about $36 million into the local economy each year.
Fair manager Amy Bliefnick said raising more revenue would probably mean a steep increase in the $5 admission fee, the lowest in the nation, and in rental fees for vendors hawking everything from corn dogs to lemon shake-ups.
Quinn showed no stomach for that.
"This is an opportunity for folks from every part of Illinois to come together as a family, enjoy a lot of family things to do and learn as well," Quinn told onlookers gathered at the 101-year-old main gate. "We have to definitely respect our agriculture in Illinois. It's a key part of our economy."
Quinn is doing his best to walk the talk. He said he had three pork chops-on-a-stick at Thursday's night's preview.
"My goal is again to eat my way across the Illinois State Fair," he said. "There's plenty to eat."