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PHOTO: John Whipple

Fairness at the Fairgrounds

The Altamont Fair is getting its feet under itself financially-but are some of its longtime renters suffering for it?

By Miriam Axel-Lute

 

'Early in the morning in September, with the mist off the mountains, with all the bands there, it's almost reminiscent of being in Scotland." Peter Plourde, chairman of the Capital District Scottish Games, is speaking of the Altamont Fairgrounds, where the games have been held for the past 29 years.

The fairgrounds, which lie at the base of the Helderberg Escarpment in the village of Altamont, are a sprawling collection of historic buildings, barns, fields and six museums full of links to the region's past-automobile, schoolhouse, farmhouse, 1890s building, farm machinery, and fire. "The Altamont Fair is home to one of the State's finest collections of antique farm machinery," reads the fair's Web site. "With the disappearance of the agricultural way of life, it becomes increasingly more important to ensure that this piece of American History is preserved for future generations." The fair's fine-arts building recently was added to the state and national historic registers.

Many people are attached to the 114-year-old fairgrounds and the 188-year-old three-county fair that is held there. The mere suggestion last year by a village planning committee that consideration be given to how to rezone the land to protect the village character in case the fair ever ceased to happen caused widespread panic that the fairgrounds were in imminent danger of becoming a housing subdivision.

Happily, these were unfounded rumors. Though it did recently sell off one parcel it could no longer maintain, the Albany, Schenectady and Greene County Historical Societies, the nonprofit that runs the fair and owns the fairgrounds, expects to be there for a long time yet. Given some of the changes that have been taking place over the past few years, however, some of its longtime renters are a little less sure.

Things have been finally looking up for the fair after a string of financial blows. Last year the fair matched its 2005 attendance in just the first four days of its weeklong August event, cushioning the impact of a rainy weekend. Big capital improvements are being made to the grounds, and the fair has increased its entertainment budget for this coming year. Along with its core offerings of agriculture education and competition, and the expected rides and vendors, the 2007 fair will have a circus, a Radio Disney entertainer, and national and local bands.

The fair's board says it has spent $2 million improving the grounds in the past couple years. Board member Bob Santorelli lists some of the projects: repaving the entire fairgrounds and making it handicapped-accessible, building a new restroom, rehabbing the historic fine-arts building, and adding a commercial building and a new cattle barn.

Still, to keep the fairgrounds in decent shape and the organization in the black is no simple task. The fairgrounds are twice as big as the grounds of nearly all the surrounding fairs, according to Santorelli, but that doesn't automatically translate into double attendance. The weather has been unpredictable, smacking the fair with heat waves, thunderstorms, and tornado warnings over the past several years, all of which dramatically affected attendance. 2003's huge blackout also fell during the fair. It has made Marie McMillen, a longtime board member who was officially hired as a part-time operations manager this January, a believer in global warming. "The weather patterns can be more severe than in times past," she says. "Inside of half an hour, the grounds are just cleared out."

Even as these things depress attendance and revenue, costs go up. "Just in roofs alone that need to be repaired, that alone is thousands and thousands of dollars," says McMillen. Some of this has been covered by agriculture-specific state grants or the sale of land, and the fair launched a five-year capital campaign in 2005. But one-time influxes of income don't address the fact that the fair's regular revenue does not cover its expenses.
Since its mission is to get people in the door and engaging with the agricultural and historical offerings of the fair, the board doesn't want to raise admission. That's where renting out the fairgrounds comes in. After all, the grounds are an unique asset, and the fair uses them for only a small time each year. Outside rentals are a logical way to make up the difference.

The fair's board, and McMillen in particular, have made a conscious effort to increase the number of outside rentals over the past couple years, partnering with the Albany County Convention and Visitors Bureau to actively market the grounds. She's pulled in new public events like Country Fest, but has also been making use of the new commercial building, quietly setting up one-day company picnics and other corporate rentals, such as auto manufacturers who use the grounds to let the local car dealers test drive their new models.

As preparation for this increase in rentals, the board first tried to figure out what it actually cost to rent the grounds, so they could establish a consistent market-rate fee structure. They compiled information on everything from electrician costs to ground crews to Port-a-John rentals, says McMillen, adding, "The computer has been very helpful." Then they adjusted the fees they charge to outside events accordingly, varying them based on how much of the fair's resources each event needs, how long they take for setup, etc.

But while to the fair the new approach to fees felt more rational and helpful for long-term planning, the managers of some of the events who have rented the fairgrounds the longest found it, and the attitude that came along with it, unpredictable and inscrutable.

The Scottish Games and the Old Songs Festival have been held at the fairgrounds for 29 and 30 years respectively. Irish 2000 Music and Arts Festival has been there for 10. Just as with the fair itself, generations of kids have grown up at these nonprofit cultural events, looking forward to returning to the familiar space each year. They may have seen their first caper toss on one of the fields or performed with their Irish step-dance class on one of the stages. Hundreds of them have volunteered in exchange for free admission, setting up the stages or gathering trash and recycling so it doesn't all fall on the fair's hired crews.

Most of these participants know nothing of the uncertainty and tense negotiations that have surrounded their events' fairgrounds-rental contracts in recent years. "We try to set up our budget the year before," says the Scottish Games' Plourde. "Unfortunately . . . their ability to consistently to stay within a given [fee] range varies. . . . We are a business like they are, and we're concerned about not being kept in the loop."

"Electrical service used to be included. All of sudden we're being given the electrician bill," says Matt Nelligan of Irish Fest. "I understand where they're coming from, but we're nonprofits too. . . . I want to negotiate in the fall. Their approach is 'We'll send you a contract and we talk about it afterward.' I'm looking for a partnership. With people who've been there a long time, it's not productive to dictate."

Old Songs has had perhaps the hardest time with the shift, as the group has faced dramatic increases in its rent as well as its fees. Old Songs director Andy Spence acknowledges that when the festival first started renting the grounds, it paid a nominal amount, since the fair at that time wasn't using rentals to balance its budget. The festival's rent was doubled in 2000, not long after longtime manager Reid Northrup resigned and a group of board members began running the fair on a volunteer basis. Last year, that contract ran out, and Old Songs' rent nearly tripled. After many negotiations, the organization secured a three-year phase-in of that increase and got a New York State Music Fund grant to help cover this coming year's rent. Still, Spence says, "by the year 2009 we may be having real problems. . . . It's probable we'll have to move."

The Old Songs festival barely breaks even each year, says Spence; its mission of preserving, sharing, and teaching traditional music and dance is not a cheap one. Paying performers, which is central to the mission, is the only expense they could cut back on. "There's a point of no return on ticket price," says Spence. "The people we would like to have come to the festival [already] can't afford it. . . . We're going to have to start offering scholarships."
"The fairgrounds suggested we sell more beer," she adds. "We said we sell as much beer as anyone wants."

Old Songs' recent three-year contract also included a directive that "there will be no more bad press," which Spence took as a reaction to the organization's initial efforts to talk to legislators and supporters about helping them with negotiations or getting additional funding. Since then she has "tried not to rock the boat," she says.

In fact, all of the fairgrounds' longtime renters were hesitant to talk about the issues, and concerned that it be clear that they acknowledge the challenge the fair is facing. After all, worrying about the effects of bad weather and trying to live up to a mission rather than just turning a profit are things they share with the fair. "We all live in this community and support the fair," says Spence. "We're willing to cover their expenses."
"It's difficult for them," acknowledges Plourde. "They're trying to keep the Old World flavor, their buildings need major repairs."
"We're all facing the same challenges," agrees Nelligan.

At base, though, they question whether it makes sense for their organizations, with their limited capacities and educational missions (all three are official tax-exempt nonprofits), to be called upon to be the fair's saviors. Even though "they do listen to us," says Plourde, "in some cases they've tried to offset some of [their] costs on the vendors. They may be going a little over the top some time. That's our concern."

"I understand where they're coming from, but we're nonprofits too," says Nelligan. "It doesn't seem like they're acknowledging our challenges."
"We feel that we're a positive thing at the fairgrounds," says Spence, who says she'd be happy to pay a percentage of her festival's income in rent. "We keep hoping someone will say 'OK, Old Songs is good for the fair. We know you can't pay this.'"

But McMillen in turn questions whether it's the fair's job to subsidize other nonprofits. "The fairgrounds has a purpose," she says. "The purpose is the Altamont Fair and promoting agriculture. . . . We're not just going to become an event-oriented site."

To McMillen, not becoming an event-oriented site means treating event rentals more strictly as a business. "The going rates are out there. It's expensive. I'm aware of that," she says. "The new events are more understanding of the cost . . . they've shopped the different places they can go. . . . [They] are happy to be here." (Calls to several of the newer public events listed on the fair's Web site were not returned.)

As for the older events and their desire for more of the give-and-take about contract terms they used to have, she says, "We want them here. . . . We don't ignore them. But we don't have the staff here to call every event [beforehand] to go through all the fine details about how we're formatting the cover page."
"They went for many many years paying a smaller rental," she points out. "And for many years those were the only events we had." But now, she says, they have to step up to the new way of doing things. Think differently. Remarket themselves. "As you begin to build and become more businesslike, one has to have a fee list. You can't be bouncing all over. That isn't right."

Meanwhile, promoters and corporate event managers are calling. "We're very pleased with what we've accomplished," says McMillen. "We're on a mission to make it better and we've been able to secure additional events to make it work." In the end, she wants to stay upbeat. If there are a few events that are unhappy and require more back-and-forth on their contracts, she says, so be it.

She does note pointedly that she has promoters who are interested in "dates that we currently have filled." But of course, she adds, "We honor the people that are here already; they get first shot. That's how we do things."

Nelligan and Plourde have both looked into options for other places to hold their events. They don't want to leave the fairgrounds, and aren't planning to, but they want to make sure they know what the options are. "Any organization will look," says Plourde. "To maintain a family event like ours you always have to look at cost. We want people to be able to bring a family of four without it being outrageous." But the fact of the matter, they say, is there really isn't anywhere else of equivalent size and facilities and character within Albany's orbit.

That may be the fact that keeps the fair afloat even through unpredictable attendance. What it means for the other nonprofit festivals that have been calling the fairgrounds home remains to be seen.

www.mjoy.org


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