Lower projected turnout and revenue weigh on Sonoma County Fair
The agency that runs the Sonoma County Fair and manages the fairgrounds reported a nearly 90% drop in its profit in 2019, recording a revenue loss of $1.37 million, and officials expect another blow to the bottom line this year when the fair shifts to a new schedule that will conflict with the start of the school year.
The loss, accounting for more than 10% of the fairgrounds’ annual budget, was largely driven by the end of one-time revenue from FEMA, which paid $1 million to the fairgrounds in 2018 to store emergency trailers that housed victims of the 2017 firestorm.
But longer-term financial struggles associated with decreased fair attendance, a horse racing program that barely breaks even and rising costs continue to put pressure on the agency’s solvency, according to county documents.
The losses come on top of a six-year slide in paid attendance at the fair — the largest source of annual revenue and costs for the fairgrounds, which has now seen revenue drop every year for more than a decade.
“What we’re experiencing here is really the challenge with horse racing,” Bartling said, noting losses in track revenue statewide. “That used to be a significant portion of our revenue. That’s where we’re seeing the biggest decline.”
The forecast losses in 2020 are driven by a forced racing schedule change this year that’s expected to translate to fewer paid visitors and less retail revenue, according to county documents, plus a sharp drop-off in revenue from horse racing and increased labor expenses tied to a $3 increase in the city minimum wage, to $15 per hour.
Fair leaders fought the schedule change, which pushed the fair to Aug 5-16, one week later than normal and overlapped with the start of school. Their appeal was overruled by the California Horse Racing Board during its December meeting.
Bartling previously predicted a $500,000 drop in revenue if the schedule change took effect. New documents show officials are now projecting a smaller loss of about $200,000, with predicted attendance dropping 5.7%, to 118,538, which would mark another low point in attendance.
The biggest factor, fair officials said, is the schedule change forced upon the fair by the state board overseeing horse racing.
Max Mickelsen, board chairman of the Sonoma County Fair, said it’s hard to quantify how much money is spent by people who come to the fair for horse racing.
It’s long existed as one of the most popular draws, but is on the wane as a revenue engine amid a precipitous drop in betting revenue and attendance, a national trend.
Bartling said that means less purse money, which in turn means fewer people are raising and training race horses.
“It’s kind of a spiral that happens with all of it,” she said.
Fair officials have discussed ending horse racing and transforming the track site, but they’re loath to give up on a timeworn tradition that still generates revenue for the fair, albeit a shrinking amount.
This year, the fair board predicts it will earn $1,441,000 from horse racing and satellite wagering, compared to $2.2 million in 2008.
Horse racing turned a profit of $75,000 last year. This year, it is not expected to be profitable.