They came, they saw, they wandered.
Two years of pent-up demand and a lovely August day led to a huge turnout for Thursday’s opening day of the Minnesota State Fair.
Tens of thousands wandered the fairgrounds in Falcon Heights, just north of St. Paul. Official first day attendance not yet announced, but vendors and fair officials said it looked like a giant opener.
The fair had been canceled in 2020 due to COVID. It returned last year, but the 2021 attendance was down 60 percent from 2019, as many were still reluctant to venture out.
Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer officially opened this year’s fair in a small ceremony Thursday morning and quoted an employee who’d observed: “Last year we were back; this year we’re really back.”
While some focused on the low 2021 attendance, Hammer said that last year’s fair, at the time, was the best attended public event in North America, “and possibly the world,” since the start of the pandemic.
But enough about last year. Those in the big Thursday crowd may have noticed a few structural changes, including shorter hours – opening at 7 a.m. instead of 6 a.m.; and closing at 11 p.m. instead of midnight. Hammer said attendance had been very light during the 6 to 7 o’clock hour, and by 11 each night, most booths and concessions had already closed except in the Midway rides, the big late-night gathering place. The shorter hours will help vendors handle labor shortages, and give employees more time to clean overnight, Hammer said.
And prices are up this year; adult admission is now $17, although there are discount days and lower prices for children and seniors. The fair lost $16.5 million when there was no fair in 2020 and it lost another $1.3 million last year with the limited attendance.
Other prices are up, too. Foot-long hot dogs went from $7 to $8, and a bucket of Sweet Martha’s cookies is now a dollar more at $19.
Tom Thumb donuts are still $6 a bag, but the donuts bucket went up a buck to $16, said manager Zach Ahrens. Donut sales last year were down about 60% he said, but looking around the fairgrounds – and at the healthy line in front of the booth – he said: “It’s like COVID never happened.”
But the fair’s Bargain Book, with loads of coupons for food and products, is still $5.
And it wouldn’t be a MinnPost State Fair story without some politicians and political booths, so:
Lots of politicians worked the crowd Thursday. Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan posed for pictures in front of their booth. Many, many pictures.
When a woman showed up with two cups of beer in hand, Walz said; “Get the beer in the picture – drinking beer at 9:30 in the morning, that will confirm what a lot of people already think about me.”
Flanagan said she grew up loving the fair, and “coming here now and seeing my name on the booth, I had tears in my eyes.”
GOP gubernatorial candidate Dr. Scott Jensen spent hours at his booth, in front of the Butterfly building, engaging with passersby and shaking hands. The booth was bifurcated, with half in purple promoting Lt. Gov. Candidate Matt Birk, the former Viking with his tag line: “Get off the bench,” and half with Jensen’s name and motto: “Heal MN.”
The ticket has emphasized Birk, with his name recognition, in lots of advertising, including some billboards that have his name ahead of Jensen’s.
A Jensen volunteer in the booth said fairgoers wanted to talk about inflation and school choice.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar had a line of folks for a photo op with at her booth Thursday. Earlier in the day, she’d brought Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to the fair. Sen. Tina Smith and Rep. Ilhan Omar, 5th Dist., were also there with Buttigieg, who was in town to tout transit improvements.
Klobuchar’s booth is across from the Dairy Building, and right in front of the My Pillow booth. Mike Lindell was not there.
The other sitting member of Congress with a separate fair booth is Third Dist. Rep. Dean Phillips. He’s not there every day, but two of his volunteers, Jeff and Bev Edelstein of Bloomington, said they take good notes of fairgoers comments and concerns, and pass them along. A frequent topic: veterans’ issues and military concerns. Sometimes, folks will ask about getting their child an internship in D.C.
Other elected officials and candidates from the major parties make appearances – and have their pictures and literature available – at the GOP and DFL buildings. They are several blocks apart: probably a good thing.
The Independence Party and the Libertarian Party each have a booth, with signs and merchandise.
Ryan Wilson, the GOP candidate for state auditor, is another politician with a separate booth.
The state Senate and House have adjoining booths along the back wall of the Education Building. Each offers a poll – on ballot-like forms – so citizens to weigh in on important issues like energy and transportation and education and gambling.
Said a staffer in the Senate booth: “The polls are similar, but ours is more refined. We are the upper body.”
The most unusual political booth wasn’t even a booth, but a portable submarine with a person inside, roaming the fairgrounds and promoting the candidacy of Tom Weiler, the GOP nominee running against Rep. Dean Phillips in the Third District.
Weiler is a Navy submarine veteran, so the floating booth is apt. And cheaper than a fixed booth. “I’m running as a conservative, so I’m frugal with my campaign money,” he said.
Apparently though, Weiler was sailing in unfriendly waters. Turns out there are rules about this sort of thing and he was told to stop.
Said a fair spokesperson: “This kind of ‘mobile booth’ is a violation of the fair’s booth rules that restricts activity to an assigned fixed location.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect first name for congressional candidate Tom Weiler. The story has been updated.