Chalk it up to fine weather, the strong economy, a fondness for fried foods or a craving for familiar comforts after a summer of bad news. The record attendance scored by the 2016 Minnesota State Fair is likely attributable to those factors and more.
But don’t swallow any claim that this year’s attendance surge was a fluke. Rather, the 1,943,719 official attendance total (add babies in strollers and employees who got in free, and actual attendance easily topped 2 million) represents the extension of a trend line whose origin precedes statehood. The State Fair has been regularly raising the attendance bar for years. Its previous turnout record was set just two years ago; the one before that, in 2009.
Minnesotans’ love for their State Fair has been a constant through 17 decades of growth and change. That may be in large part because the fair’s stewards — the Minnesota State Agricultural Society, a private entity — has seen to it that the fair has grown and changed apace with the population and culture.
This year’s huge crowds and long lines — particularly on the final Saturday, when 260,374 tickets were sold — raised understandable questions in this page’s Readers Write column and elsewhere about how much more growth can be accommodated within the confines of the 320-acre fairgrounds and a traditional 12-day calendar. Might more days, more space or both soon be in order?
Not yet, the fair’s executive vice president and general manager, Jerry Hammer, said this week, though he acknowledged that the question has been asked by the fair’s governing board. Even at 2 million visitors, the fair is nowhere near its capacity. Crowds actually were denser 30 years ago, when 80 acres on Machinery Hill were occupied primarily by giant tractors and combines, not people. Other changes — more bathrooms, benches and performance spaces among them — have increased the fairground’s capacity and fairgoers’ comfort.
The fair’s urban location is among the keys to its success. But that location limits expansion possibilities. Redevelopment of the existing fairgrounds to better serve crowds is a smarter strategy than acquiring already-developed land across heavily traveled streets, Hammer said. Further, he said, adding more days to the fair would be a major disruption for vendors and fairs elsewhere that build their schedules around Minnesota’s.
While fewer lines and speedier service may be desirable, we suspect Minnesotans won’t much mind Hammer’s assurance that no big changes in the fair’s configuration or calendar are in the offing anytime soon. We know Minnesotans whose first act upon receiving a new calendar each year is to count 12 days back from Labor Day and mark the start of the fair. There’s reassurance in knowing that whatever the new year brings, the pronto pups, animal barns and carousel will be right where they’ve always been at the end of another Minnesota summer.