at the Fairgrounds
Altamont Fair is getting its feet under itself financially-but
are some of its longtime renters suffering for it?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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."
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."
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.'"
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
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
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
"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."
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.
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."
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.
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