More than 300 fairs and festivals—as well as museums, theatre companies and homecoming celebrations—face an uncertain future as lawmakers meet to plug a $270 million hole in next year’s state budget.

Cutting support for fairs and festival from the state budget could save the state $4.6 million says one legislator.

Delegate Patrick Layne (R-Kanawha) is advocating a one-year moratorium on that spending, but supporters say these events generate millions more than they cost taxpayers. In Charleston right now, state leaders are debating spending cuts and tax increases to keep the state’s budget balanced.

“I think some people would be surprised by the large number of people who come to the state for our fairs and festivals,” Caryn Grisham, deputy commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, said.

Grisham said the state currently spends about $2.6 million in this area. It is divided among three accounts, including fairs and festivals, which is the largest of the trio.

Take Buckhannon for example. It’s usually a small town with about 6,000 residents, but that changes in May during the annual Strawberry Festival: an estimated 80,000 people pour into the community. (It’s actually happening right now through Sunday, May 22.)

They’re ready to spend plenty of money, said Bob Wines, former president of the West Virginia Association of Fairs and Festivals. Wines also serves on the board of the Strawberry Festival.

That festival received $25,000 in state funding this year; supporters say the fair generates $7.3 million worth of local economic impact.

“Every hotel room is taken, the restaurants are full and even large box stores like Lowes and Walmart are sponsors because they recognize the people we bring through their doors this week,” he said.

Collectively, fairs and festivals bring in over $1 billion of economic return to the state supporters say.

“I’d say that is an outstanding return on the state’s investment and really a no-brainer,” he said.

Slightly more than $1 million went to 12 separate festivals and other art programs:

  • West Virginia Public Theatre in Morgantown $167,000
  • Greenbrier Valley Theatre in Lewisburg $138,000
  • Elkins’ Mountain State Forest Festival: $53,000

“The fair or festival in each small community really is the tie that binds, and it really is what brings people back home as well as attracting new folks to come take a look too. How do you even begin to place a dollar value on this? It really is priceless,” said Wines.

Earlier this year, a report entitled “Wild and Wasteful West Virginia” issued by two special interest groups outlined how more than $330 million could be saved by cutting state programs deemed wasteful. Fairs, arts and culture were targeted for defunding due to the expense to taxpayers.

“We’re going to see a lot of small events that are going to have to close their doors.”

“At many different levels, we are very disheartened about the legislators’ possibly taking the state funding away from these community fairs and festivals. It really doesn’t seem like either the House or Senate are interested in funding them at this point,” he said.

The Contemporary American Theatre Festival’s 26th season runs July 8-31 in Shepherdstown and much has already been done to make it successful, according to Gabriel Zucker, director of communication and marketing.

Unlike some smaller state-funded events, the CATF is doing well artistically and commercially. They fully produce five new plays each year. A study from 2006-’08 concluded the festival added substantially to the local economy.

“The refrain here in Shepherdstown is that it’s Christmas in July during the festival. Anecdotally, we hear from business owners here in town that their revenues are up 25 to 30 percent at that time,” he said. The festival employs over 140 season workers. This year the event received $79,558 in state funding.

Last year’s attendance was up by 11 percent, reaching record levels with more than 15,000 tickets issued. It recently received international recognition as being one of the ten best the world.

FestivALL Director Brittany Javins said state funding helps keep the 12-year-old Charleston event affordable. This year the event received $16,502 in state funding.

“It’s an event that started in the community, so that focus still matters to us. It is a multi-venue, multi-art event that happens throughout the city. We have music, theatre, and visual art. Nationally-known talent as well as local artists participate in the summer festivities which usually attract about 50,000 visitors. And they spend money during their visit.

“I can definitely say there is a high return on the state’s investment. For example, we do surveys to determine if folks are staying in a hotel or with family, and we also ask how much money they spent to eat out or shop in our local stores. Plus we are paying artists locally,” she said.

Most folks stay at least two nights, she said. This year’s FestivAll will take place June 16-27, but some additional events are also being held over the Memorial Day weekend (May 27-29).

“We’ve estimated that there has been a million dollar impact each year, and we believe that is a conservative figure without doing a full-blown economic survey,” she said.

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