If the DuPage County Fair is going to survive, county officials should address the annual event's falling attendance and financial woes and, possibly, move the fairgrounds from Wheaton, according to a newly released report.
But some say the solution shouldn't include dissolving the group responsible for distributing state money to the DuPage County Fair Association, which is the nonprofit entity that plans and runs the five-day fair.
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"We've been functioning quite well as an independent organization and watchdog of the finances for the fair association itself," said Michael Formento, chairman of the DuPage Fair and Exposition Authority. "I think the county already has enough on its plate. I'm not quite sure why they would want to take it (the authority) over."
The first in a series of reports assessing two dozen DuPage agencies concludes that transferring the fair and exposition authority's mission and power to the county would remove a level of government and "relieve the county of any associated risk."
DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin called for the comprehensive review last year after financial scandals involving the DuPage Housing Authority and the DuPage Water Commission. The chairman makes appointments to the boards and commissions that oversee the agencies.
After Cronin successfully pushed for a state law giving him more oversight power, DuPage spent $85,000 to hire the public accounting and consulting firm of Crowe Horwath LLP to do the assessment of the independent agencies, which account for nearly $300 million in public funding.
When all the reports are completed, officials will consider ways to improve efficiency, streamline operations, share services and increase transparency. Cronin said there also might be ways to consolidate or eliminate agencies.
"DuPage can serve as a laboratory for ideas and methods on how to trim the size of local government," Cronin said.
In the report released Tuesday, the consultants from Crowe Horwath said a street lighting district near Naperville should consider annexing into the city or explore options to consolidate its functions with Lisle Township. They also suggested the functions of two mosquito abatement districts in West Chicago and Wheaton be transferred to the county health department.
The consultants also studied the DuPage Board of Health but didn't recommend any major changes.
As for the county fair, the consultants said there's "some concern about the long-term viability" of the fair because of a continued drop in funding and declining attendance over the past decade.
The fair and exposition authority was set up 23 years ago to receive annual payments from the Illinois Department of Agriculture. But the roughly $198,000 in state money the authority was given last year is significantly less than the nearly $300,000 it received in 2010.
Meanwhile, the authority's reserves have been falling by more than $90,000 a year. It had $621,901 in total assets at the end of September 2010.
"As the state of Illinois continues to face fiscal stress, it is not likely that the financial situation of the authority is going to improve unless additional sources of revenue are found," according to the report.
In addition, Fair Association revenues from gate receipts and other sources "continue to face stress" because of falling attendance.
Despite the challenges, Formento said the fair and exposition authority's seven-member board has done its job. State law would need to be changed to transfer the authority's power to the county.
"We have been very carefully monitoring those expenses," said Formento, adding that he and the other trustees are unpaid volunteers. "We are very careful on all expenditures."
The Crowe Horwath report also touched on the efforts to relocate the fair. It said DuPage should actively work with the authority to find a new location.
Cronin has said the existing fairgrounds next to the county's government complex in Wheaton could be "more productively used" if the fair was relocated. The 42-acre site, which the county owns, is being leased to the fair association at a rate of $1,375 a year. That lease is set to expire in 2020.
Formento said the authority has been trying for more than a decade to find a new location. Several years ago, it tried to purchase a parcel from the DuPage Airport in West Chicago. But that deal never happened because the price was too high for the site near the intersection of North Avenue and Powis Road.
"Unfortunately, there are very few pieces of land left that would work well for the county fair," said Formento, adding that the authority is planning to contact the airport again.
One alternative suggested by the Crowe Horwath consultants is that the county investigate sharing a fair location with a neighboring county "to better manage costs and potentially provide more activities and options for fair attendees."
In the meantime, Formento said he understands why some would like to see the existing fairgrounds in Wheaton used differently. A federal courthouse has been the most speculated potential development for the parcel, which has an estimated value of $3.7 million to $9.7 million.
"I understand their concerns," Formento said. "I'm hoping they understand our concerns that we don't want to see the fair disappear."
Fair: Authority's reserves falling by more than $90,000 a year