A new private foundation has been created to raise money for Illinois State Fair infrastructure. Questions have been raised already about how the private Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation will intermingle with government.
The new non-profit organization bypasses the Illinois General Assembly, which has not passed measures to create a public foundation. Senate Bill 2903, introduced in February by Republican Sen. William Brady, would create a public Illinois State Fairgrounds Foundation under the authority of the Department of Agriculture. As of July 31, that bill was in the hands of the Senate Assignments Committee.
State officials peg the cost of upkeep at Springfield and DeQuoin fairgrounds at $180 million.
"It’s embarrassing when you walk by a sheep barn or a pig barn," said John Slayton, a Republican and longtime Springfield resident with memories of showing animals at the fair as a kid, "and the roof – seriously – anybody can tell it needed replaced in the ‘70s. It leaks, there are raccoons."
Slayton, a founding member of the new foundation, credits Gov. Bruce Rauner for taking the lead. Rauner characterizes the foundation as a private effort.
"Almost every other state that has significant agriculture has a foundation that can support their fair," Rauner said, "where the business community and generous community residents can donate money so that taxpayers don’t have to pay all of it themselves. It’s only common sense.”
Rauner says there’s no downside.
Opponents -- including Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan -- say public money should be able to support a public structure, provided there's adequate revenue. They also cite concerns about possible sweetheart deals and a lack of transparency.
The rules governing this new partnership are unclear. A news release from Rauner's office says the foundation "will be led by a volunteer board representing a diverse cross-section of the agriculture industry. Board members will engage with private sector business organizations and individuals to develop strategies to raise private funding, coordinate with the Department of Agriculture to plan projects and determine the Fairgrounds’ needs, and serve as ambassadors for the revitalization and improvement of the Fairgrounds and their agricultural heritage."
The Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield includes more than 170 buildings spanning 360 acres of land, with buildings as old as 124 years. The Du Quoin State Fairgrounds includes more than 20 buildings spread across more than 1,200 acres of land, with buildings as old as 93 years.
- WNIJ's Victor Yehling contributed to this report.