PALMER — Cold late-summer weather, Alaska's sluggish economy and half-full concerts left the Alaska State Fair with a half-million-dollar deficit last year.
The fair draws over 300,000 people to the state's largest gathering with an eclectic mix of vendors and events, record-beating vegetables, and a big concert series that draws performers from the Lower 48.
Last year, for the first time in about a decade, the fair registered a substantial loss, as announced during an annual meeting last week.
"What I said to the membership was we got hit by headwinds," said Danny Consenstein, who serves as the fair board's treasurer. "Some of the headwinds were Alaska's recession. Some of the headwinds were weather. And the other… our biggest financial risk is our concerts."
The fair board approved a budget 5 percent smaller this year, Consenstein said.
Attendance last year dropped by about 12,000 or nearly 4 percent to a little more than 281,000, according to Jerome Hertel, the fair's general manager.
Losses including admissions, parking, beverage sales and concert tickets contributed to the roughly $500,000 deficit in the fair's nearly $7.3 million budget, Hertel said. But the fair still has more than $900,000 in cash reserves held over from better years.
The fair is financially "sound and stable," he said. "The fair survived tough economic times, and survived world wars and survived the earthquake. It'll survive and prosper."
State fair officials say along with the economy, last year's below-average temperatures for much of the two-week event cut into attendance.
Concert losses inflicted the most damage, officials said.
Acts like the Doobie Brothers and country crooner Josh Turner sold out, marketing director Dean Phipps said. But weekday acts didn't fare as well. Other acts that performed at last year's fair included Judah & The Lion, Third Eye Blind and Lacrae. Grammy-nominated rock band Papa Roach had to cancel because the lead singer was having vocal cord surgery.
This year, the fair is working to draw more concert goers by reducing the price of fair admission to $10 for people who buy a concert ticket, Phipps said, and his staff is looking at new ways to pick entertainment.
But it's still going to be a struggle to attract big names to the outdoor fair stage that maxes out at 5,500 capacity — without chairs. The fair is also bucking a trend for bands to tour together to fill big arenas. Journey and Def Leppard, for example, probably won't make it to Palmer.
The fair has already announced four acts for this year: rising country star Luke Combs, stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan, country trio Midland and multi-decade pop rockers the Goo Goo Dolls.
The economy was also felt at other events including Anchorage's Saturday Market, where vendors paid for fewer days to sell through the summer.
"It was definitely a down year," said Mike Fox, general manager of Anchorage Markets, which runs the market.
The economy "absolutely" was felt at the Tanana Valley State Fair in Fairbanks last year, said Gabriele Larry, president of the fair board.
"We had a really good fair, a fun fair. People are just challenged monetarily right now," Larry said.
She declined to go into details about the fair's financials.