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Saturday, September 30, 2006

2006 Voter's Guide Begins!

Election Day, November 7, is fast approaching, and with 11 ballot measures to decide in addition to the races for US House, governor, and other state and local offices, we South Dakotans have a lot to figure out before marking our ballots. Over the coming weeks, I will offer my recommendations on the various races and issues. I will also create an index on my home page to compile all of the recommendations in one easy summary that voters can print and take to the polls with them as a checklist to make sure they're doing the right thing for this great state. Let the debates rage, and let's all get out and vote!

Monday, September 4, 2006

"We're Not Racing!" -- South Dakota State Fair Downplays Attendance

Summer is wrapping up, and in a state where tourism is the second-largest industry, we pay close attention to the success of our various efforts to draw tourists here for one last blast of fun and taxable spending before the leaves and the snow begin their race to the ground. We should pay even closer attention to the success of an event like the South Dakota State Fair, which the state subsidized last year to the tune of $1,000,000 last year, only to see a decline in attendance from 210,000 for the 2004 event to 158,000 at the month-early 2005 event. A tad disappointed, the state reduced the subsidy, handing the State Fair a meager (please read that adjective with sarcasm, thank you) $750,000 to keep the event afloat this year.

Now the State Fair has made efforts to improve over last year's performance. The fair moved back to the traditional Labor Day weekend and shortened its run to five days. But as a demonstration of its lack of confidence (either in its actual performance or in its ability to generate instant spin), the State Fair officials are refusing to release any attendance numbers until two weeks after the fair ends. Says State Fair manager Susan Hayward in the Huron Plainsman, "The No. 1 reason the attendance figures will not be released is because they are no indication of how well the fair is doing." Hayward complains that "sometimes the press relies heavily on the attendance figures as a measuring stick on how the fair is doing."

So the number of people attending an event is not a measure of an event's success? State Fair officials are certainly bucking conventional wisdom here. The Lifelight Christian music festival in Sioux Falls just wrapped up its three-day run, and event coordinators Mike Samp and Nathan Schock offered the media attendance estimates each day, rain or shine, from the 50,000 who braved the logistical nightmare of Friday's rain and mud, to Saturday's rebound to 93,000 concertgoers losing flip-flops in the mud, to Sunday's 120,000 who came for partly sunny skies and the Newsboys and set a one-day attendance record for Lifelight. Across the border, the Minnesota State Fair posts as the second "Quicklink" on its home page a chart comparing daily attendance between last year's fair and this year's. These successful events don't hesitate to make attendance numbers public, even though neither is supported by public money. (The Minnesota State Fair has received no public funding of any kind since 1949.)

Fair manager Hayward can likely make a strong argument that the State Fair is more than a revenue-generator. The fair is the "state tournament" for 4-H-ers who compete in a diverse array of fun and practical events. The fair brings families and friends together for an enjoyable traditional event, sort of a South Dakota family reunion. We certainly shouldn't judge the success of every aspect of our culture in terms of numbers and dollars. However, when $750,000 of state tax dollars are involved, taxpayers are entitled to ask for practical policy results. The state doesn't spend $750,000 on the state debate, football, or basketball tournaments that Secretary mentions (in today's Argus editorial) in justifying state funding for the fair. When the state throws that much money at a project, it expects a return on that investment.

To claim that attendance numbers aren't a measure of the fair's success defies good business sense. Success in tourism is increased visitor numbers. Visitors equal dollars and good word-of-mouth. Visitors are votes, people signaling their support of an event with their wheels and their wallets. As a publicly funded event, the State Fair has an obligation to inform its stockholders (us taxpayers) of the results our money is producing. To keep those numbers hidden, even for a couple weeks, smacks of little kids who see they are falling a step or two behind in a game and whiningly declare, "We're not racing!" Even if the attendance numbers aren't good, the State Fair should deal straightforwardly with us and conduct its business as openly as possible.