Remaining free is key for Ozaukee County Fair

Organizers say vendors, attractions, crowds have made fair one of the last no-admission-fee events of its kind

Amanda Dieringer held her goat during the small animal auction at last year's Ozaukee County Fair. Press file photo
Ozaukee Press staff

This week begins the 160th Ozaukee County Fair and one thing hasn’t changed since 1859.

Admission is still free.

And keeping it “one of the last free fairs in the Midwest,” as its website proclaims, is an annual challenge, said Ozaukee County Fair Board President Mark Larson.

“Charging admission is something we’ve discussed,” Larson said. “But we thought if we charged, we would decrease attendance and end up losing in the ultimate analysis.”

Most other fairs, like the Washington County Fair, charge admission and then book major musical acts to draw crowds.

But in Cedarburg, where the Ozaukee County Fairgrounds are located, even the music is free. 

“We tried doing bigger musical acts and charging admission (to see performances), but it just wasn’t what we wanted,” Larson said.

Instead, the business model that keeps the Ozaukee County Fair free is a mix that includes, loyal vendors who rent space; monster trucks, demolition derbies and tractor pulls, for which the fair gets a percentage of ticket sales; well-attended 4-H exhibits; and busy food and beer stands.

“The fact that we’re free also means people are able to visit multiple times over the course of the fair,” Larson said.

It costs “just south of half a million dollars” to stage the fair every year, Fair Board Treasurer Bret Priaulx said. 

The single largest revenue stream — 35% to 40% — helping pay those bills are sponsors and vendors, Priaulx said.

The five-day fair, which draws 40,000 or more people each year, this year boasts about 60 sponsors, according to the fair website, 

The number of and dollars generated by sponsors has grown substantially in recent years, Priaulx said.

“Since I came on the board, sponsors generated about $15,000. Now we’re about five times that,” he said. “That’s a huge accomplishment for the board and the community, using their networks to tell people about all the great things the fair does for our youth and our communities.”

Larson agreed.

“We have a lot of good sponsors who have contributed annually. And we have a lot of people willing to put money toward the event,” Larson said.

The vendors to which Priaulx referred are those who sell food, drinks, ice cream, souvenirs and other items throughout the fairgrounds.

They do not include the three or four beverage stands operated by the fair itself at the music tents and at the grandstand. Together they generate 20% to 25% of all fair revenues, Priaulx said.

About 5% comes from the beverage stands at the grandstand shows — monster trucks, tractor pulls, demolition derbies — 

which generally draw more families and fewer beer sales. 

At the music venues, however, the beer flows more freely. The other 15% to 20% comes from those sales at the music venues.

That makes it important to draw large crowds for the music.

“We try to have events and an atmosphere that people are attracted to,” Larson said. “Free music draws crowds and keeps our beer stands busy. Beer stands and free music — that is the model that has worked really well.

“We’re investing a lot of money, well into five figures, for free music,” Larson said. “The only way we recoup that cost is through our beer sales and vendor sales. It’s a fairly significant amount. But we try to keep pretty good control of that.”

Larson said organizers try to book at least one act of national stature as a headliner and then several others of regional and local renown.

This year’s headliner is Tyler Farr, who has several top country hits. He is performing Thursday night on the Center Stage. 

“Thursday is not usually the best attended. That’s always our lightest night,” Larson said. “That’s why we’re bringing in a national act that night.”

The fair also gets a share of tickets sold to the grandstand for the trucks, tractors and demolition derbies — about 20% of fair revenue — and to the carnival — about 5%.

Parking accounts for another 5%, he said.

On the other side of the ledger, the fair is able to keeps its costs down thanks to a battalion of volunteers.

“Basically, we’re run by a committee of volunteers,” said Larson, whose board numbers 15 people. And for a lot of Ozaukee County residents, helping out at the fair is an annual tradition.

“A lot of families and friends come together to make it happen every year so we don’t have a payroll that we need to support. 

Priaulx said there’s no official tally of the number of hours put in by volunteers to stage the fair, but estimated “it’s in the thousands.”

“Fair week really is nine days long. It starts the Friday before the fair officially begins,” he said. “I’d say for board members to put in 100 hours over those nine days is nothing. At least another 15 people are putting in those same hours because they appreciate what the fair did for them or for their families.

“Multiply that even by minimum wage and you can get to some very big numbers very quickly,” he said. “And that doesn’t even include all the 4-H families. I was just talking about setting up and running the fair.”

Other fairs also have volunteers, but a fair that “goes big” requires staff to oversee all the operations.

“A lot of fairs have someone working full-time year-round,” Larson said. “But we don’t have a staff that sits in the office every day. That helps us contain our costs pretty significantly.”

The Ozaukee County Agricultural Society operates the fair, which is self-sustaining and  gets no direct financial support from Ozaukee County taxpayers.

The county used to make a contribution to the fair, but hasn’t done so in nearly a decade. The county still maintains the fairgrounds and buildings during the year, however.

“There is a misconception that the county operates the fair,” Larson said. “We get no monetary contributions. They help us out with the grounds before they turn it over to us. We split the cost with the county on some of the grounds.”

Priaulx said it’s difficult to estimate the savings provided by the county’s maintenance of the grounds and many of the buildings.

“The county doesn’t provide financial assistance but they are a strategic partner,” he said. “Those (facilities) costs aren’t captured in that number.”

About half the fairgrounds are rented from the Cedarburg Fire Department through its Fireman’s Park Inc., entity, which also operates beer and food stands under the grandstand. All of the money raised there is kept by the fire department.

“Profits” are plowed back into the fairgrounds, into improving the fair-going experience and to benefit participating youth groups.

One expenditure has been to expand internet access to allow live ticketing to events and helping bartenders use tablets to ring up beverage sales “so they can process transactions without having large cash boxes. 



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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