The Maryland State Fairgrounds are a “shambles,” according to the people who run the Timonium site, in desperate need to remove lead paint peeling from the grandstand and renovate century-old pipes.
But money is a problem for the Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society, the nonprofit organization that manages the fair. The coronavirus pandemic canceled last year’s state fair and cost the society nearly 80% of its expected revenue.
The group is hoping sports betting could be a winning ticket to pay for repairs.
“The carnival midway used for COVID testing and vaccination collapsed two weeks ago with yet another busted water pipe,” said Barry Williams, a board member.
The administrative building roof leaks into the Vista room used by the county’s first responders throughout the year. The veterinarian detention barn roof has cracked down the middle.
Support structures in the fairground’s grandstand and community center are corroding, and the Cow Palace — the center of coronavirus services — is without air conditioning. The Sheep and Swine Building hasn’t been upgraded since it was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s.
“And the list goes on,” Williams told state legislators during a January hearing. “We need help now more than ever.”
The state fair society thinks a coveted sports betting license could bring in steady revenue needed to for repairs that will cost “many millions” of dollars to complete, said Gerry Brewster, chair of the board since 2017.
Republican state Sen. Chris West, who represents the greater Towson, Timonium and Cockeysville areas, is sponsoring a bill for a sports betting license for the fairgrounds once the state begins to issue them, even as legislators are only just beginning to hash out details of how sports betting will operate.
There are many unanswered questions after voters overwhelmingly approved sports betting in November, including how to ensure licenses are equitably issued and how many the state will dole out.
It’s unclear if those issues will be resolved this legislative session.
“It’s possible that we can come up with an easy way to do it,” West said. “But it’s also possible that it’s going to require some backroom negotiating.”
‘The largest fair in the State’
Once bustling with “flivvers, limousines, busses, buggies and trains,” as described by a 1925 Baltimore Sun article, the state fair began on 4 acres of land in 1878 as the Lutherville Fair, emerging as the most popular among other Baltimore-area fairs that ultimately fizzled.
The construction of a North Central Railroad extension caused fair managers, who in 1879 incorporated the Agricultural Society for Baltimore County, to relocate the fair to its current destination off York Road.
With 45,000 attendees by 1938, a Sun article that year declared the annual event “the largest fair in the State.”
In 1953, the nonprofit group was formed to manage the fair, taking over the grounds from the Maryland Jockey Club.
But as the fairgrounds grew from a 37-acre plot to more than 100 acres over a century and its managers added buildings, the upkeep of the grounds and its now 42 buildings grew daunting.
“When you’re at the same location for 141 years — and you’re a nonprofit — you tend to try to repair things cosmetically and not structurally, because you don’t have the money,” Brewster said. “You try to devote your limited resources … to fulfilling your mission. What takes a back seat, unfortunately, is your facilities.”
A bad situation made worse
As the 12-day Maryland State Fair, which runs from the end of August to early September, has become more expensive to organize, its profits have fallen since 2016, Internal Revenue Service tax filings published by ProPublica show.
From 2011 to 2012, the Maryland State Fair and Agriculture Society brought in nearly $1.5 million in net income. From 2017 to 2018, the nonprofit lost more than $464,000, according to tax documents.
Having canceled the fair organization’s primary moneymaker in 2020, profits by the third quarter of that year were down by 78%, or $4.7 million, compared with 2019, Brewster said.
The pandemic “made a bad situation worse,” Brewster said. But through Baltimore County, the nonprofit received federal CARES Act dollars for some coronavirus-related costs “that enabled us to survive.”
The state fair society gets its capital funding from the General Assembly, receiving roughly $500,000 a year for critical repairs, according to West and Brewster.
One major upgrade was made without state assistance: an installation of more than 7,000 solar panels in 2020, supplying 85% of the campus’ total energy consumption; Brewster expects the switch to solar to amount to a $1.2 million savings over the next 15 years.
Donna Myers, the first woman president of the organization and a Carroll County dairy farmer who first exhibited at the fairgrounds in 1963, said she and Brewster share a vision that sticks to the roots of the fairgrounds, established as a way to showcase the work of 4-H youths and the Future Farmers of America through livestock competitions and sales.
But “it seems that with each generation, [there are] not nearly as many people in farming,” Myers said.
The mission is to reengage Maryland’s youth through new programs about Maryland’s largest commercial industry.
To that end, the state fair added the U-Learn Farm in the Cow Palace 13 years ago, giving kids the opportunity to learn about oyster beds, create seed sprouting jars and milk a fake life-size cow. The fair also added the birthing center about 20 years ago, where fairgoers can witness the births of calves, piglets and chicks.
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Fair officials hope a sports betting license would generate enough revenue to expand education programming and scholarship awards, too. Myers said there are plans for an outdoor play area and a greenhouse for students.
Brewer points to the success of year-round off-track betting at the fairgrounds. The fairgrounds played host to off-track betting for years, but only during a limited summer horseracing meet. It opened nearly five years ago to year-round off-track betting, and in 2020 grossed the most of the state’s six off-track betting sites. The Timonium location brought in almost $12.5 million last year, although Brewer said the license nets the nonprofit $300,000 after payouts to customers are made and the money is split among three partners.
With income generated by a sports betting license, Brewster said he would hope to earn enough to fix century-old water pipes “that explode regularly” and winterize, upgrade and remove lead paint from the grandstand and community center so it can be used year-round.
A 2019 county-funded tourism study by Johnson Consulting recommended the county “strongly support the expansion and upgrades” of the fairgrounds.
If the fairgrounds are brought “up to date” and operations are expanded, Johnson Consulting determined that the state fair could infuse up to $60 million to the state’s economy.
The Greater Timonium Community Council, a coalition of about 50 communities surrounding the fairgrounds, submitted a letter of support for the bill. The group had been against the Maryland State Fair and Agriculture Society’s pursuit of an off-track betting license, fearing it would lead to casino gambling at the fairgrounds and detract from the location’s family-friendly atmosphere.
Eric Rockel, the community council president, said he and other community leaders supporting the bill because their fears over off-track betting did not come to pass.