The Pennsylvania Farm Show that opens this weekend might not look much different to visitors, but the state’s top agricultural showcase is in a much better financial situation than it was a year ago.
Ag Secretary Russell Redding told lawmakers in March that the Farm Show faced a $1 million to $2 million shortfall in the 2020-21 fiscal year.
The Farm Show is now projected to be solvent till 2023, when the deficit will be a more manageable $90,000.
The Ag Department made up the ground through increased revenue and efficiencies, said Shannon Powers, an Ag Department spokeswoman.
At last year’s House ag budget hearing, Republican Rep. Sheryl Delozier worried that “the (Farm Show) revenue is staying level and the costs are going up, which is not a good math problem for us to have.”
But the complex finished the fiscal year with record income of $8.95 million, a 14% jump from the previous period.
And despite contractual increases in personnel and other expenses, the administration is holding cost increases to 2% or less per year, according to Powers.
With three arenas, multiple conference centers and plenty of media coverage each January, Harrisburg’s 24-acre Farm Show Complex is one of the best-known event venues in the state.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors pack the building each year, bringing a $350 million economic impact to the capital region.
It hosts about 300 events a year. In addition to its namesake attraction, the complex’s 80 major shows include the All-American Dairy Show, Keystone International Livestock Exposition, Pennsylvania Auto Show and Great American Outdoor Show.
President Donald Trump held a rally at the complex in 2017, and it’s the home field for the Harrisburg Heat soccer team.
The Farm Show’s budget for the current fiscal year is $14 million, including $5 million from the state Race Horse Development Fund.
Republican Rep. Stan Saylor, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, doesn’t like that arrangement. Horse racing doesn’t have anything to do with the Farm Show, he said in March.
Still, most of the Farm Show’s revenue — a projected $9 million — comes from facility rentals, food, parking and sponsorships.
In March, Redding warned that traditional revenue sources were close to maxed out.
Ag commodity groups have long received discounted rates for booths in the food court, where they serve the popular milkshakes, mushrooms and other fare.
“That funds a lot of (the) agricultural community, and we certainly want to be supportive of that,” Redding told legislators in March.
The department looked into getting more from food court vendors but encountered resistance, he said.
The state also gives a discount to a dozen agricultural shows that use the complex.
Charging them the full commercial rate could raise up to $1.7 million, but that plan would likely drive away groups such as Dauphin County 4-H, Redding said.
Some shows that use the complex receive county tourism dollars, but the complex itself does not.
And facility rental rates have gone about as high as they can before becoming uncompetitive, Redding said.
Saylor said he’s heard the opposite, that many convention centers think the Farm Show’s rates are too low.
“It seems to be booked every day of the week almost, and that’s why I’m concerned,” he said. “Why is it not self-sustaining?”
The Ag Department contends that it has made great strides to ensure that the complex can do just that.
“Over the past four years, department leadership has worked to keep operating expenses down by reducing overtime, streamlining duties and working more efficiently as a team,” Powers said.
A $19 million capital improvement, funded separately from the general Farm Show budget, will improve energy efficiency, saving money over the long term.
The project includes a roof replacement on the Cameron Street side and upgrades to the heating and exhaust systems, generators, fire alarms and sprinklers, Powers said.
The Farm Show’s finances were not affected by the lease-leaseback arrangement that Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration signed in 2018. The deal is essentially a $200 million loan from a private firm to the state.
The Farm Show does make money from the naming rights to marquee venues such as the New Holland Arena and Giant Expo Hall.
And that $15 parking fee during Farm Show week? It covers security, rental of nearby community college parking areas, shuttle bus connections to remote lots, and Susquehanna Township’s 20% parking tax.
“With Farm Show starting this week, keep in mind that parking fees help keep complex finances in the black,” Powers said.
Admission remains free. The Pennsylvania Farm Show runs Jan. 4 to 11.