The State Fair’s Heritage Square, tucked in one of the sleepier corners of the fairgrounds, lures its faithful fans with a little nostalgia — printing a newspaper, buying drawings of train depots or catching a bluegrass show.
But after nearly 50 years and changing priorities, it’s time for Heritage Square to go, according to State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer.
Plans are in the works to turn the space into the fairground’s busiest transit hub.
The State Fair board has tentatively approved the razing of Heritage Square after this year’s fair, which ends Labor Day, to make room for a new bus drop-off and pickup center that would replace the congested Como Avenue site.
A bigger, more people-friendly market facility also would go up to showcase many of the same artisans and craftspeople who have made their home at Heritage Square for years, Hammer said.
“Most of the commercial exhibitors will be back in a new format and a new way of presenting things that’s more current and more contemporary,” Hammer said. “That 1965 design doesn’t work so well anymore.”
The project, which may cost $10 million to $15 million, could get the board’s final OK as soon as Aug. 30. Whether it’s done immediately or delayed will largely depend on the success of this year’s fair, Hammer said.
“If things are rained out, then we may wish to take the prudent route,” he said.
Although Hammer said that fair officials will try to accommodate Heritage Square vendors and attractions at new or current sites, at least one longtime tenant worries it may not be able to survive being uprooted: the Minnesota Newspaper Museum, operated since the mid-1980s in its own building by the Minnesota Newspaper Foundation.
“They would work with us to find a new space, but the reality is that the foundation doesn’t have much money,” said Julie Bergman, the foundation’s president. “Without the money, re-creating the museum in another location would be very difficult.”
Bergman said that foundation board members will discuss their options Friday via conference call. If the State Fair board decides this month to proceed, she said, they may have only a few weeks to move the museum’s heavy antique presses and linotype equipment.
“Our priority is to keep the museum intact,” she said.
Hammer was sympathetic. “We’d love to have them continue on at the fair, whether it’s part of this area or somewhere else,” he said.
“The facility is just falling apart,” he added.
The Heritage Square site, on West Dan Patch Avenue north of the Midway and west of the Grandstand, began as a gathering spot for teen fair visitors in the 1960s. It was a place for rock ’n’ roll dances, customized cars and fashion shows.
The Young America Center was replaced in 1975 by Heritage Square, which took its cue from the nation’s Bicentennial celebration and featured a log cabin, the State Fair History Museum (in an old train depot) and handcrafted goods. It included a stage for free music and variety shows.
But its location on the fair’s periphery limited the number of visitors who stopped for a look. “I’ve described that location as a dead end with a cul-de-sac. You have to want to go there. It’s not on the way to anything,” Hammer said.
That would change dramatically under the plans inked by the State Fair board.
A larger and more inviting west entrance would be created to handle express buses and park-and-ride shuttles that now stop at the Como Avenue lots. More than half of fairgoers use transit to get to the fairgrounds, Hammer said.
Discussions about a new transit hub, he said, “have been going on a long time. Now we’re far enough along with maintenance and improvements on the rest of the grounds to do it.”
The fair board has invested more than $100 million in the last 15 years on new or improved facilities, including the Grandstand and the International Bazaar, he said.
John Cartwright of Shoreview, who has sold his drawings of Upper Midwest railroad depots at Heritage Square for the past 10 years, said that fair officials sent him a letter last week telling him of the pending changes. He said he hoped to get a chance to set up shop in the new facility, although he worried that rent might go up.
“Heritage Square was kind of unique — you could build in your own fixtures,” he said. “Now my curiosity is killing me. I’m dying to know what they’ve got planned for the exhibit space.”