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Hopkinton State Fair Association defends its history in town

Last week, the Hopkinton selectmen's board refused to renew an agreement for 2014 that has meant a $15,000 tax break for the Hopkinton State Fair's association. Residents worry that the fair, pictured here during its 2008 set up, isn't doing enough to contribute to the local community of vendors to warrant such a large break. 

(Veronica Wilson/Monitor file)

Last week, the Hopkinton selectmen's board refused to renew an agreement for 2014 that has meant a $15,000 tax break for the Hopkinton State Fair's association. Residents worry that the fair, pictured here during its 2008 set up, isn't doing enough to contribute to the local community of vendors to warrant such a large break. (Veronica Wilson/Monitor file) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

For Deb Curtis, the first weekend in September is Hopkinton State Fair weekend.

It’s the horses she grew up with and the fried dough she craves every year. It’s a family tradition, since her father was part of the fair association when she was a girl and she herself has been a board member for 25 years.

For Curtis, the first weekend in September is Hopkinton State Fair weekend, and Hopkinton State Fair weekend is her life. But for others, the annual fair seems to be less and less a part of Hopkinton’s life.

As the fair approaches a century in Hopkinton, some residents have complained the board has distanced itself from local vendors and has fallen out of touch with the town where none of its members live. They took their concerns to the Hopkinton Board of Selectmen, which last week refused to renew an agreement for 2014 that has meant a $15,000 tax break for the fair association in years past.

“I think many people in the town didn’t feel at this point that there were enough benefits accrued to the town from the fair operations for the town’s taxpayers to be subsidizing the fair’s operations,” Chairman Jim O’Brien said after the decision.

“I think they’ve seen a decrease in the benefits of the fair to the residents of Hopkinton.”

Curtis, who lives in Concord and is now the board president, said she was surprised the selectmen and local people believe the fair association is not a benefit to the town.

“We are part of the community,” Curtis said. “We want to be part of the community. We’ve been there for 98 years, going on 99.”

Last week, George Saunderson patiently slid his finger down a list of local organizations he said benefit from use of the fairgrounds throughout the year. Saunderson first worked for the fair as a horse farrier for more than 20 years, later giving up that paid job to be a member of the association’s volunteer board. As he tended to lost shoes and hoof injuries, Saunderson also looked after his own children running through the fair, returning to their father in the horse ring for more ride money.

He can easily tick off that list of local organizations that use the fairgrounds, defending the fair he has worked at for more than two decades, the fair his kids loved years ago.

Cross country, track and lacrosse teams practice and compete on the fields for free, Saunderson said, as does the local Blackwater Nordic Ski Club. Hopkinton High School only pays the electric bill when the fairgrounds hosts its graduation each year. Local police and fire departments use the grounds for training, and 4-H clubs from the area receive a discount from the fair association to use its property.

“Our mission statement is the promotion and education of agriculture. . . . We’re fulfilling our mission by helping (these organizations) out and giving them a place to host (events) to educate the public,” Curtis said. “The fair is the fair, but this stuff is year-round.”

While the residents and the board disagreed on the fair association’s presence in the town, they did agree to work toward rebuilding their relationship. Curtis and Saunderson spoke eagerly about connecting with town officials more often, hopeful they could show Hopkinton the fair hasn’t abandoned its traditional home.

“Some of the sentiment that was voiced in that meeting (last week) was that there is no longer somebody from Hopkinton on the board,” said Saunderson, who is from Loudon. “We would love one of those guys to step forward and do this for nothing, as we have. We’re always looking for somebody from the town.”

Paying the bills

For the last seven years, the fair association has been paying the town $31,000 per year in lieu of taxes under what’s called a PILOT agreement. According to minutes from a July 15 selectmen’s meeting, the assessed value of the fair association is $1,555,300. Without this agreement, it would pay the town $46,000 each year under the current tax rate.

“I certainly understand that the selectmen are responsible for the town of Hopkinton, but I was surprised that they didn’t even want to talk about (a new PILOT agreement),” Saunderson said.

Saunderson balances the budget for the fair association – a 501 (c)3 bringing in nearly $1 million each year.

“Almost all of the dollars that come into the fair go right back out of the fair,” Saunderson said.

At last week’s meeting, local residents complained the fair is operated like a business – and it should therefore pay taxes like one.

One resident “stopped going to the fair when the fair started charging admission for children,” a draft of the minutes from that meeting states. “If you run it like a business, then you should pay full taxes like all the other businesses in town. Taxpayers should not be held accountable for the fair finances.”

According to tax documents required for any nonprofit, the fair association made $926,103 in 2011 and $978,086 in 2010. In both years, it overspent that revenue. In 2011, expenses totaled $990,527; in 2010, $1,007,390.

None of the board members are compensated for their work, Saunderson said, though the fair hired about 144 workers last year. Salaries for those employees make up more than $250,000 of those fair expenses. Town Administrator Neal Cass said the board also spends between $70,000 and $80,000 each year to pay off-duty police officers and firefighters who work that fair weekend in September. Other expenses include improvements necessary to keep the fairgrounds up to code, such as nearly $500,000 spent last year to update its electrical wiring, and maintenance of the buildings and prize money for competitors. Then there’s massive insurance bills, and liability costs that have skyrocketed since the fair began in the early 1900s as an agricultural show.

“You see the fair for five days,” Curtis said. “You like to think what (the budget) used to be was the fair park and simple things. . . . Times have changed.”

There are extra funds in the fair association’s bank account for the years when it can’t break even, but Curtis said the majority of the bills are paid with five days of admissions prices and fair fees.

“I won’t say there’s ever a cushion,” Curtis said. “Our business is based on fair attendance year to year. The biggest factor that plays on our five days, (people) coming in, is the weather.”

For example, fair attendance was down with a little rain during two days of this year’s fair.

“You have five days out of the whole year to make a living, basically,” board member Toby Buckingham of Concord said. “If you have a couple of poor days, you have 360 days to make up for that.”

‘People don’t want to pay’

The fair is a member of the New Hampshire Association of Fairs and Exhibitions, where Curtis claims their “sister fairs” are often discussing the same challenges her board faces in Hopkinton.

“I think everybody has their struggles,” she said.

Some, like former volunteers at the Contoocook United Methodist Church food booth, are still unsympathetic to the fair association. Their voices were among those that complained to selectmen, saying their traditional booth had been forced out of the fair in a dispute with the board. Board members said they needed to keep up with fire codes, an expensive demand that has pushed out some local vendors, such as the church.

Contoocook resident Jacqueline Stock, who is a member of the church, spoke up at that meeting because she felt the fair association has moved away from “local involvement and local participation.”

“I went (to the meeting) as a concerned citizen, a concerned taxpayer . . . in my perception that they have not necessarily been a good neighbor to the community,” Stock said in an interview last week.

Cindy Heisler has watched those struggles for fairs such as the Hopkinton State Fair in her position as the secretary for that statewide Association of Fairs and a program assistant in the Division of Animal Industry at the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture.

“People don’t want to pay,” Heisler said. “People want to go someplace for entertainment and not come out of pocket for too much.”

Heisler did not know of other towns at odds with local fairs and their leadership, but she echoed many of Curtis’s other concerns. Fairs across the state are struggling to attract enough people to cover the costs of both new attractions and new code regulations.

“That’s their struggle, trying to figure out the cost of advertising and bringing in fresh ideas and fresh entertainment,” Heisler said.

But for Curtis, the first weekend of September is still Hopkinton State Fair weekend – even without the town’s tax break.

And even with biting criticism from Hopkinton residents, Curtis said she is committed to building a better relationship between the fair association and the people who live in the town that hosts what has long been one of her favorite traditions.

“We want to be a good neighbor,” she said.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

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