You griped, and the Minnesota State Fair listened. Mostly.
Last year I wrote a column that discussed accessibility issues at the fair, in particular the new multimillion dollar transit hub, where buses from all over the metro converge and drop people off at a ticket booth.
If you were lucky or smart and took the right bus, you got off pretty close to the gate where wheelchairs and scooters are available for rent. If, however, you jumped on the Best Buy/Richfield and Maple Grove bus or the Parade Stadium bus, there was a vast, barren field of pavement between you and your ride. For many seniors and those with mobility problems, it was a grind. I saw people huffing as they held onto garbage cans to rest under the relentless sun.
So I wrote a column about the problem, which drew dozens of e-mails from people with disabilities who had complaints or suggestions. Brienna Schuette, marketing and communications manager at the fair, asked me to forward the e-mails. The column and mail were “a driving force getting a lot of changes made,” Schuette told me.
Let’s start with the transit hub. Last year, there was nowhere to rest or sit. This year, there are a dozen or so benches along the way. It is still a long walk, and there are no shuttles or golf carts (which I suggested), but at least there are places to catch a breath.
Schuette said the fair staff discussed adding more assistance at the hub, but given the high traffic of both vehicles and pedestrians — “plus the associated liability and risks to people and property” — they decided not to offer pedicabs or a small trolley service.
It’s a big improvement, but if you can’t walk 200 yards easily, you should choose a different gate.
Other improvements initiated by fair administration included another wheelchair and electric scooter location, which makes five, at gate 18 near the corner of Randall Avenue and Underwood Street.
The West End gate is a popular entrance, and fairgoers wanted more accessible parking there, so the fair added approximately 80 spots just north of the gate.
The new show “History On-A-Schtick,” which runs every morning at 9:30 on the Schell’s Stage, is ASL interpreted, allowing those who read sign language to enjoy a show.
Even with the increase in the number of wheelchairs and scooters, they still go fast. Donna Raphael and Sue Blumentals got to the fair at 8:15 Thursday, and were told there were only eight electric scooters still left at the transit hub gate. I saw a lot more there, but they were likely reserved, which you can do online or by calling the company HomeTown Mobility 24 hours in advance.
Last year I called to see if I could reserve, but a recording told me to leave my name and that someone would call back. They never did. This year someone answered and said the scooters were all taken for the first day of the fair, but available for following days. So, an improvement.
“We were just lucky to get here early enough to get one,” said Blumentals. She is an architect and has the disability access “regulations drilled into my head.”
Blumentals loves the fair and has gone since she was a kid. She has an eye for disability issues and still sees problems — ramps into buildings that “are certainly not code.”
She said if people with disabilities want to take public transportation, the University of Minnesota park-and-ride, from where the 960 bus departs, is the closest to the gate.
I asked Raphael, who walks with a cane and used a scooter, how she liked the fair.
“I hated it,” she said.
The scooter didn’t help her get through the throngs as the day went on and she had to constantly negotiate large groups of people standing in the street staring at their phones.
Good luck to fair officials in dealing with that one.
But I talked to at least two dozen people with mobility issues, including a group of about 50 seniors from a nearby nursing home, and nearly all of them seemed to think accessibility has improved. There are also more places to sit down. That’s because of the Minnesota State Fair Foundation’s Friends of the Fair program, which takes donations from groups or individuals to sponsor a bench. That has brought hundreds of new benches onto the grounds, according to Schuette.
Greg Foss and Cathy Rettger were just entering the fair when I ran into them. Rettger uses her own motorized wheelchair. I called them after their day at the fair.
“I think it went pretty well,” said Foss. “Since the last time I was here, they have changed some cutouts and that helped. I think [Cathy] enjoyed herself all day.”