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Doug Finke

Illinois State Fairgrounds foundation lags in fundraising

Only $32,000 raised in 2017

Only $32,000 raised in 2017

Nearly 2 years ago, Gov. Bruce Rauner, fed up with inaction by the General Assembly, bypassed the Legislature and announced the formation of a not-for-profit foundation to raise money for repairs to the state fairgrounds in Springfield and Du Quoin.

No one thought the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation would overnight raise the $185 million needed to pay for all of the deferred maintenance at the two fairgrounds. However, the foundation hasn’t even come close to hitting the $2 million to $3 million a year target that was thought feasible at the outset.

The latest financial report filed by the foundation with the attorney general’s office shows income in 2017 was just over $32,000.

“We just keep churning, and we’ll keep asking and having fundraising events, but it’s a slower process than what I envisioned,” said the foundation’s chairman, John Slayton.

Slayton said he takes heart from states such as Iowa, Indiana and Minnesota, which have successful foundations that raise money to support their state fairs. All of them have been in operation a lot longer than Illinois’ foundation.

There were repeated efforts in the General Assembly to create a fair foundation that would raise money privately to support the state fair. However, the Legislature never voted to create one. That’s when Rauner stepped in to create the foundation without a vote by the Legislature.

While the foundation isn’t raising millions of dollars a year, it has had some success stories. In 2017, the foundation had a kick-off event that Slayton estimated raised about $10,000.

Slayton also said an anonymous donor is making regular contributions of $2,500 a month. ...

George Obernagel of Waterloo, a member of the foundation board, also donated $10,000 to pay for improvements to the livestock center. ...

Obernagel said people should understand they don’t have to make a large contribution to help out. At the same time, he said he thinks if the foundation can secure a big donation, it could spur others to follow suit.

He also said it may be necessary for the foundation to “hire an individual to go out and raise funds who has the knowledge of this.” He said Indiana does this.

Members of the Illinois foundation include a mix of people who have full-time jobs and retirees.

Slayton said there is an education process involved in trying to secure donations. He said people have raised concerns about whether the money could be diverted to other uses. Lawmakers have regularly taken money out of special state funds to balance the budget. However, the foundation money is separate from those state accounts and cannot be swept by lawmakers. ...

There also may be an issue of donor fatigue.

“A lot of ag companies like ADM and CME Group and John Deere and Caterpillar and State Farm all contributed to the [governor’s] mansion [repair project],” Slayton said. “So the well’s kind of dry there for a few years. I think we’ll have to wait. That’s fine, because they both had to be renovated.” ...

Slayton said the foundation still sees naming rights as a potential revenue producer. However, a potential deal to secure naming rights to the Coliseum has fallen through.

“We’ve talked to a large ag association in Illinois for 18 months,” Slayton said. “I kind of assumed, wrongly, that they were going to agree to naming rights on one of the most prominent buildings. I went before the board of directors, made a presentation and a few days later was notified they’d voted it down. I think the fact the state got $30 million affected that decision. We’ll find somebody else, so no big deal.”

The $30 million was included in the state budget to start making repairs to the fairgrounds. Despite what happened with the naming rights, Slayton called the influx of money “a huge game changer.” He said talks continue with other corporations about naming rights to fair buildings.

Holly Spangler, a foundation member and editor of the Prairie Farmer newspaper, said the state money this year could make a difference for donations.

“I think the companies and individuals who would be willing to donate kind of wanted to see some sort of effort from the state,” she said. “We really didn’t see that until this summer. It’s a good start, I would say.”

Donations to the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation can be made at

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