The Minnesota State Fair shattered attendance records this year with more than 2 million visitors, sparking debate over whether the end-of-summer fest is bursting at the seams.
The answer: No problem. Bring it on.
Over the years, the fair is ever-evolving to handle the growing crowds, whether it’s adding bathroom stalls or revamping its spaces while food vendors find ways to serve more, faster.
“Absolutely there is room for more [people],” said Jerry Hammer, the fair’s executive vice president and general manager, who dissed the idea of expanding or extending the fair.
In fact, the sweaty sea of humanity is just part of the experience for some.
Attendance at the annual Great Minnesota Get-Together has steadily ticked upward over the past several years, and this year’s 12-day attendance smashed last year’s old record by drawing 2,046,533 visitors. In addition, five days set daily attendance records as visitors poured through the gates in search of deep-fried possibilities, music and blue-ribbon exhibits.
There are only a few times during the 12-day run when Dan Patch Avenue and the other streets that wind through the fairgrounds throb at capacity.
Most days, the fair is open from 6 a.m. to midnight, but most visitors are there between 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Hammer said. And for the most part, there are only three to four hours on a couple of weekend days when the fairgrounds feel crowded, he said.
“That’s when the line between Sweet Martha’s and the pork-chop guy kind of bump into one another,” Hammer said. “Only 10 percent of the fair has a crowded feeling in some areas. To think we can’t handle that volume of people isn’t true. We can.”
Over the years, fair officials have overhauled and sometimes tweaked the 322-acre fairground to accommodate bigger crowds.
For example, the fair once devoted 80 acres to farm machinery. “Less than 2 percent of the audience was a potential customer,” Hammer explained. “The fair was more crowded 35 years ago than it is today because of that. … Fairgoers were concentrated in a smaller area.”
But that changed as Machinery Hill gave way to more popular attractions for urban dwellers. It’s about using existing space more efficiently, Hammer said.
Fair officials will soon break ground on a new exhibit hall on the north end, he said. “If we continue to use all the space we have, we’ll continue to spread things out,” he said. Other changes such as remodeled and new bathrooms help manage the growing crowds.
“We try to build a new bathroom at least every other year, and lately it’s been every year,” he said. A more modern bathroom that replaced a Works Projects Administration-era one is 10 times bigger, he said.
Vendors also have stepped up to handle bigger crowds. The Minnesota Farmers Union, which started offering food and coffee, had lines of customers stretched across one street and into another last year. “This year, there were zero lines and their sales went up because they built a bigger counter and developed a new system to handle the crowd,” Hammer said.
Que Viet, a Vietnamese vendor that became an instant hit last year, built a bigger trailer with three times the service capacity to handle the crowds. And over time, the deep-fried pickle vendor expanded from a 10-foot booth in the food building to a “giant trailer,” Hammer said.
The crush of getting to the fair also has evolved with the addition of more park and ride lots that offer bus transportation. Younger folks often rely on ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft, Hammer said.
For those reasons, Hammer quickly dismisses the idea that the fair might need to extend its 12-day run or expand its boundaries. Or, how about an admission-price increase to curb the enthusiasm?
“Hell no,” Hammer said.
The crowds just aren’t an issue. In fact, it can be part of the experience with social media posts that boast about being part of a record-setting crowd.
“It’s no fun going to a party if nobody is there,” he said.
The 63-year-old Hammer knows the fair inside and out. He’s headed the fair since 1997 but has worked there since he was 15, never missing a year there.
“The older I get, the more amazed I become at what this place is,” he said.
For many, the fair is a collective experience that people are drawn to and where memories are made, Hammer reflected.
“I have an aunt who is 87 years old and she walks all over the fairground,” he said. When he asked why she likes being there, she merely said: “I just like being there.”