The Du Quoin State Fair has been a staple of southern Illinois summers for nearly a century -- and as local mayors know, it also has been an important economic driver.
When Illinois finally passed a budget earlier this month, some of these mayors were disheartened to note that the downstate event once again was the "stepchild" to its Springfield counterpart.
Du Quoin State Fair has rich historyAlthough it had humble beginnings, the Du Quoin State Fair has drawn millions to the small southern Illinois city.
The fair, which is nearing its centennial, was born in 1923 when a group of Du Quoin business leaders wanted to hold and event that would draw people from the area to their town.
W.R. Hayes became the prime owner and manager of the event. Hayes was a successful businessman, owner of the local Coca Cola company and a dairy business. He financed the development of the fairgrounds.
The first fair was held Oct. 6, 1923. According to a story published in the Du Quoin Evening Call, "electric lights will be turned on for the first time tonight."
While the first three annual events were held around the beginning of October, in 1926, the dates changed to Labor Day week.
Hayes died in 1952, having suffered a heart attack just a few days after the closing of the fair. His son, Gene, took over management of the fair.
In 1957, Gene and his brother, Don, bought the Hambletonian from New York. Hickory Smoke won the first race, with prize money totaling $111,126. Du Quoin was home to the Hambletonian, billed as "the Kentucky Derby of harness racing," until 1981.
Auto racing fans also found a niche in Du Quoin. Major drivers such as A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti were regular competitors.
The fair also drew the top names in entertainment. Performers over the years have included Liberace, Bob Hope, Nat King Cole, Johnny Cash, the Beach Boys, Reba McEntire, Wayne Newton, the Osmonds, and Sonny and Cher.
Don Hayes took over management in 1964 after the sudden death of his brother. When Don was killed in a plane crash in 1967, Bill Hayes, the grandson of W.R., took the reigns. In 1979, he sold the property to Carbondale businessman Saad Jabr.
In 1986, after 63 years as a privately owned fair, the state of Illinois purchased the event from the Jabr family for $3.5 million.
While the Illinois State Fair in Springfield will receive $5.5 million for entertainment this year, the Du Quoin State Fair will net just $696,000.
Du Quoin Mayor Guy Alongi said he realizes the Du Quoin event is on a somewhat smaller scale, but the issue is one of fairness.
"I do think we need to be treated fairly," he said. "As a mayor, I'm just looking for an equal shake."
Sesser Mayor Jason Ashmore agrees.
"Springfield needs to remember that southern Illinois is still part of the state of Illinois," he said, "and this part of the region needs to be invested in just like the rest of the state."
Benton Mayor Fred Kondritz took to Facebook for voice his support for the fair.
"It is critical that we Southern Illinoisans keep the Du Quoin State Fair in full operation for the economy of Southern Illinois," he wrote. "We cannot afford to lose such a historic asset."
Carbondale Mayor Mike Henry knows well the economic impact the fair has on his city.
"The economic impact on Carbondale is significant to the positive," he said. "Our hotel rooms are booked that weekend completely full. Our restaurants are really busy."
Alongi pointed out that the fair is not just specific to Du Quoin.
"It's an economic engine for the entire region," he said.
Ashmore estimates that thousands of people come through Sesser during the fair.
"Tourism is our biggest economic engine, and the fair falls in that category," he said. "People come from all over, from other states. All those people spend money when they visit."
Ashmore believes the fair really pays for itself.
"When you think about all the money and tax revenues that come in, " he said, "it's an economic boom. That goes for Illinois, too. They get their piece when people stop and buy."
Alongi said he realizes the "guys running the Department of Agriculture have a tough job" and his intention is not to bash the state, but the inequity in entertainment funding puts the Du Quoin event at a disadvantage.
"It's the mindset up north," he said, explaining that Du Quoin cannot afford to pay more popular acts on such a limited budget.
The biggest draw in Du Quoin this year is Nelly, while Springfield sports a lineup that includes Pentatonix, Alabama, Sublime and Chase Rice, among other top industry names.
"People drive to St. Louis and pay big money to see big entertainers," Alongi said. "If you build it they'll come. If you book big name entertainment, we'll sell the tickets."
Alongi said the state needs to realize what a gem it has in the fairgrounds.
"It's a beautiful facility," he said, "if they could just cross their T's and dot there I's."
Alongi has suggested a fair advisory board for the downstate event.
"The people in Springfield need to realize that the culture of Springfield and Du Quoin is different," he said. "One is a lion and one is a tiger."
He said putting together local entrepreneurs "like Harry Crisp and Cynde Bunch" and letting them guide state officials would help.
"Look at what Black Diamond does," he said, referring to the Marion business. "They get Kid Rock and draw 15,000 people. The state needs to look at what they're doing and duplicate that."
Both Ashmore and Alongi said the fairgrounds could be better utilized year-round for other events.
"The state just sat on its feet on the eclipse," Alongi said. "You tell me a better place in southern Illinois besides the Du Quoin fairground to watch the eclipse."
Ashmore is firm in his belief that the fair needs a bigger entertainment budget.
"They (the current acts) were good in their day, but you need someone newer," he said.
According to figures at celebritytalent.net, the minimum booking fees for just two of the Springfield acts, Alabama and Brad Paisley, are nearly equal to the entire Du Quoin entertainment budget. Paisley gets a minimum of $500,000, while Alabama's minimum is $150,000.
Although some believe that Illinois doesn't need two state fairs, Alongi said that "deep down" he believes the state is committed to the Du Quoin State Fair.
"There's actually legislation that says the state has to have two state fairs," he said. "That doesn't mean it can't be un-legislated at the drop of a pen."
He also said he believes it's a work in progress.
"Let's face it," he said. "We've come off four or five bad years at the state level. We've had no budget for two years, but we've got one now. It's time for the rubber to meet the road."
"Investment creates jobs," he said. "That is a fact. They (the state) need to remember that when it comes to southern Illinois."