Walworth County Fair brings millions to local economy
ELKHORN—The Walworth County Fair is more than an event that connects urban and rural residents, bridges history and modern technology and offers fresh corn on the cob dripped in butter.
It's an important part of the summer tourism season and a moneymaker for local businesses.
“You can just notice the increased traffic,” said Susan Pruessing, public relations coordinator for the fair, describing Elkhorn in the days leading up to and during the fair.
“You can notice the increase of people in the area. There's a sound. There's a smell wafting through the air. You can smell the popcorn, the caramel corn.”
Walworth County Fair attendees spend a little more than $6.3 million at the fair and generate about $1.3 million in sales for hotels, restaurants and other businesses, according to a UW-Whitewater study analyzing the fair's economic impact.
The fair also creates 116.6 full-time jobs.
UW-Whitewater surveyed 1,022 people at the 2009 fair. The average attendee that year spent $11.50 on refreshments at the fair, $3.17 for transportation or parking and $1.56 at a local restaurant, according to the survey.
“I think it's very vital (to Elkhorn),” Pruessing said. “We've been at this for 165 years. It's important.”
Businesses reap the benefits of having one of the state's largest county fairs near downtown Elkhorn.
The fair has “an important economic impact on the area,” the study states, and business owners and employees agree.
Kris Mohr, co-owner of Someplace Else Restaurant, 1 W. Walworth St., Elkhorn, sees a 50 percent increase in business during the county fair.
Mohr in early August plotted her staffing schedule for the six-day fair, which begins Wednesday and runs through Monday, Sept. 1.
For the fair rush, Mohr will have 14 employees working, twice as many as usual.
“It's wonderful … It's just great for business,” Mohr said.
Mohr said people come in for a meal or drink before or after the fair. The fair does not serve alcohol.
On an average Monday, Mohr makes about $1,500. During the fair, that will double, she said.
In the 21 years Mohr and her husband have run the restaurant across from the county government building, she has seen more people grab meals outside the fairgrounds because of cost, diet and an appetite for local.
“I think people are nice enough and they know we've been here a long time and want to support the local businesses,” Mohr said. “I think it's in a great location.”
Mohr and Pruessing pointed out that business naturally picks up in the summer, but the fairgrounds, 411 E. Court St., brings people to Elkhorn all year.
“The fairgrounds in general is just such an asset to the city with the flea markets that go on, all the camping (on the grounds), the dog shows and everything else that's going on,” Mohr said.
Area hotels usually are booked all year because of events at the fairgrounds, weddings or other events in the county.
The Hampton Inn, 40 W. Hidden Trail, Elkhorn, is no different, said Eric Schmitt, the hotel's assistant general manager and director of sales.
About 75 percent of the hotel's Labor Day reservations are for people attending or working at the fair, front office manager Kirsten Lawless said.
The fairgrounds is “a big thing, or revenue driver, for that particular weekend, and it gets everybody here for the three or four days,” Schmitt said.
By the second week of August, Hampton Inn had 68 rooms booked for people attending the fair.
The longest booked stay is 15 days.
The fair set-up and tear-down crews stay at the hotel, and entertainers do, too. Entertainers stay for one day, crew members stay from three to 15 days, the clean-up crew stays one day, visitors stay from one to four days, Schmitt said.
Schmitt recalled legends such as The Beach Boys, John Stamos and Belinda Carlisle hanging out in the hotel lobby mingling with guests.
People attending the fair often book a room for the following year when they check out, he said.
Typically, the hotel is booked for fair week by April.
“It's great for the whole community as well because people are here for extended stays,” Schmitt said.
GROCERIES AND GAS
More than 97 percent of 2009 fair attendees spent money on refreshments at the fair, according to the UW-Whitewater study.
When people buy a refreshment, they're supporting local grocery stores where the supplies were purchased.
“The Walworth County Fair has a demand for locally produced materials needed to produce their product,” the study states.
Pruessing said people with fair stands purchase what they need from local grocery stores.
“They have to buy their product in order to keep their stand going and such, not to mention napkins and paper products and things like that,” she said.
Vendors aren't the only reason for a pickup in traffic at grocery stores or gas stations during the fair, she said. Lots of people in the neighborhood stock up for company they'll host during the fair, and fair workers shop locally.
“You'll see an increase at gas stations and food stores, hotels--it's a heightened (time of year),” Pruessing said.
Elkhorn Police Chief Joel Christensen said his department doesn't see an increase in revenue, in fact it sees a decrease.
Christensen said extra staff hours, costing up to $6,000 on top of normal wages, are devoted to walking and biking patrols in the fairgrounds and areas adjacent to parking.
Officers don't write more tickets during the fair, and the majority of calls are for vehicle lockouts, not criminal offenses, Christensen said.
The police chief said that's because the fair is family oriented and doesn't allow alcohol.
Pruessing said the fair is about more than money.
“I think people take a pride in the city, too."
“You can hear the excitement … You can hear the music from the grandstand throughout the town," she said. "There's kind of a heightened awareness when the fair is here.”