The Anoka County Fairgrounds had a hole in its schedule on Mother's Day weekend. Scores of vendors who participate in local outdoor fetes did, too.

Both are now booked.

After years of struggling to attract vendors and a pause at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials at the north metro fairgrounds are staging a comeback with the new Springtime & Sunshine Festival, a free four-day event featuring live music, artisans displaying handcrafted wares, carnival rides, activities for kids and a beer garden.

After the long winter, "people just want to get out," said Michael Ahlers, president of the 15-member Anoka County Fair Board.

Events like this one bring in revenue the nonprofit fair board needs to cover the $600,000 cost to stage the annual county fair, which has run every July since 1912. The one exception was in 2020, when the event was cancelled due to the pandemic.

"It was sad not to have a fair, but it gave us a time to catch our breath," Ahlers said.

And time to retool.

Fair attendance hit a 10-year high in 2021, with 43,449 people passing through the turnstiles. Last year drew 42,947 people, making it the second-most-attended fair since 2014.

But officials have struggled in recent years to find enough vendors to fill all three exhibit buildings. Ahlers attributed that to merchants focusing on online sales and social media to attract customers.

Space, however, didn't remain vacant. For the first time last year, the fair dedicated one building exclusively to agriculture education. Attractions included a giant sandbox filled with corn, a display showing how many loaves of bread can be made from a bushel of wheat and a fiberglass cow that gave kids a chance to see what it would be like to milk the real thing.

This year's county fair, scheduled for July 25 to 30, will feature a national act for the first time in 25 years when country singer Tyler Farr takes the stage. The fair also will feature bull riding, a demolition derby and a National Tractor Pullers Association qualifier.

"It won't just be me and my tractor," Ahlers said.

Michaela Liebl, the fair's manager and its lone paid employee, said the board is dedicated to the fair and is committed to keeping it relevant and financially self supporting. That's where events such as the Springtime & Sunshine Festival come in.

The board books the grounds for car shows, graduation parties, birthdays and weddings. The extra events, along with winter boat storage, account for about a third of the fair's income, Liebl said.

Plans are underway for a new ticketed, family-friendly festival in October. The fair's annual holiday lights extravaganza, which has been free since 1998, will also go on.

For now, the immediate goal is making sure the fairgrounds, on St. Francis Boulevard on the north end of Anoka, are looking their best for the Springtime & Sunshine Festival.

"I just hope I have enough parking," Liebl said.