Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Nonprofits lose Stanislaus County Fair alcohol sales

Private security guards stand at the entrance to a beer booth at the Stanislaus County Fair in 2009. Three Turlock nonprofits have been told they will no longer be allowed to sell alcohol at their booths because the fair is taking over booze sales.
Private security guards stand at the entrance to a beer booth at the Stanislaus County Fair in 2009. Three Turlock nonprofits have been told they will no longer be allowed to sell alcohol at their booths because the fair is taking over booze sales. Modesto Bee file

Sometimes, life really doesn’t seem fair. Even at the fair.

Last month, three Turlock nonprofit organizations received letters informing them they would no longer be allowed to sell alcohol at their booths at the Stanislaus County Fair. Among them, the Turlock Veterans of Foreign Wars post, which began selling beer there more than a half-century ago.

Likewise, the Active 20-30 Club with its popular margaritas, and the Families Activities Community Turlock (FACT) Club, are out. All three organizations use proceeds from their alcohol sales at the fair to benefit the community. The American Legion, which has a multiyear agreement in place for its beer booth, is not affected. Nor will the VFW’s Women’s Auxilliary stop selling their hamburgers.

So why were the others ousted? Why did the fair board sever ties with groups that not only make much of their revenue from the fair but also bring lots of visitors through the gates?

Because the fair took a $250,000 annual hit when Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated state support for the fairs. The Stanislaus County Fairground, CEO Chris Borovansky said, has some facilities that are more than 75 years old and in need of repair or replacement, costing money that is no longer available from the state.

“We’re the only state agency expected to fund our own programs and maintain our own real estate,” he said. “What we needed to do was to find a revenue stream to replace all of that money.”

If you want to see what happens when a fair runs low on the funds that fund the fun and draw visitors, just look 30 miles north. Officials canceled the San Joaquin County Fair last summer, though a smaller agriculture festival later took its place. And the once-gigantic Stockton Asparagus Festival was nixed last spring after years of declining attendance, though a group hopes to bring it back in 2015.

“We’re not headed toward those sorts of troubles because we make business decisions,” Borovansky said. “The easy thing to do was to take all the beer over. But we still have the American Legion, the Kiwanis, Rotary (which offers beer floats), the Assyrian-American Club, the Knights of Columbus. We’re still a local fair. We have a higher percentage of nonprofits involved than any fair in the state our size.”

Easy, maybe. But not particularly popular. People who commented on the Turlock Journal’s Web page were critical of the fair board’s decision.

“They cut off the VFW?” one wrote. “What a bunch of BS. The people the VFW help, (they) served our country and helped keep the rest of you safe.”

“This is so sad and disappointing!” another wrote. “These charities have done so much for our community! This means much of the money for our high school kids’ sober grad night won’t have funding now.”

Because the fair itself cannot sell alcohol, the Friends of the Stanislaus County Fair Foundation, formed in recent years to generate revenue for the fair, will take over the sales. It then will donate the proceeds to the fair. Borovansky said the fair could conceivably recoup $100,000, making another $100,000 and further closing the gap through more off-season facility rentals.

A club’s beer/alcohol sales, I’m told, can be as high as $60,000 over the course of the fair. But after paying a $200-per-keg fee to cover security, ID checks and whatnot, they’d net about 30 percent of the gross. And that’s the high end. A representative from the Active 20-30 Club told the Turlock paper her organization netted $7,000 from fair sales last summer.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be other opportunities for the nonprofits, Borovansky said. VFW Commander Mike Seward declined to comment on the situation until after meeting with Borovansky later this month to explore options “and move forward.”

Regardless, the VFW and others won’t be selling alcohol at the fair next year, and if they feel that isn’t fair, they are not alone.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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