Last August, a powerful thunderstorm buffeted the State Fairgrounds, with strong winds damaging dozens of buildings and downing tree limbs just 10 days before opening day of the annual Great Minnesota Get-Together. Crews quickly put the place back into shape, though, and the 1.6 million visitors barely noticed.
This year, the Fair faces metaphorical storms: high gas prices, a weak economy and the specter of protesters in town for the 2008 Republican Convention, which begins on the Fair’s final day.
Will these ill winds affect attendance at the 12-day Fair, which opens Thursday and runs through Labor Day?
“It’s anybody’s guess, but traditionally, bad economies have been good for the Fair,” said Brienna Schuette, the Fair’s marketing and communications manager. “Our biggest year ever was 2001, just after the tech bubble burst.
“When times feel tough, people sometimes stay closer to home.”
Dave Sunderland of Andover hopes she’s right. For the past 41 years, he’s run a root-beer stand, at the base of the grandstand ramp, just across from the DNR building.
“Maybe this will be the last big hurrah of summer for all those people who didn’t drive very far on vacation this year because of the gas prices,” Sunderland said.
Of course, big crowds don’t always translate to big sales for little vendors like Sunderland. “Lots of times when it’s extra-crowded, it seems like people get hot and tired and go home earlier, so they don’t buy as much,” he said.
John Keenan, patriarch of the family that’s run the “Ye Old Mill” ride since before World War I, thinks the coming Fair might be pretty good, with gas prices high but down from the $4-plus peak.
“Those who normally take long trips might be staying in the state this year,” he said. “And no matter what the economy — [and his family has seen it all at the Fair, from the boom times to the Depression and back] — people still need some entertainment,” he said.
GOP in town just in time for Fair’s last days
So assuming $3.65 gas doesn’t keep the Cottonwood contingent and the folks from Fergus Falls away from the Midway and Ethanol — er, Machinery — Hill, will a swarm of Republicans matter?
Their national convention officially opens on Labor Day, Sept. 1, so it overlaps one day with the Fair. Last year, State Fair Police Chief Art Blakey — who relies on hundreds of off-duty police officers in the region to take vacation from their departments to supplement his small force — wondered if St. Paul and Ramsey County would need all of the area’s off-duty cops for convention coverage. But on Monday, Blakey said he’s now got enough officers to cover the afternoon shifts but could use a few more for the morning shifts.
St. Paul police officers usually patrol the streets right outside the Fair to keep order, and will do so this year, except for the final long weekend, Blakey said. To replace them on those three days, Blakey has hired an extra contingent of reserve officers.
There have been rumors that some protesters, in town for the convention, might come to the Fair to protest before a captive audience, especially if Sen. John McCain or other dignitaries make a well-publicized visit for Pronto Pups and glad-handing. So far, though, there’s no word that they will. And convention organizers haven’t announced any plans to bus delegates to the Fair en masse, though it’s certainly likely that some early-arriving conventioneers will check out Fair attractions.
But the police force is ready for any of those scenarios, Blakey said. “You won’t see helmets and nightsticks, but we’re prepared for any situation.”
Bumper crop of politics
And, of course, the whiff of politics will permeate the Fair, even more than usual in this presidential election year. The state parties have their own buildings, where officials and volunteers, and the occasional candidate, shake hands, sell T-shirts and listen to complaints and suggestions. The Democrats are at Dan Patch Avenue and Cooper Street. Republicans are on Carnes Avenue, next to Ye Old Mill. The Independence Party booth is at Underwood Street and Dan Patch.
As the Republican presidential candidate, McCain will have his own booth, at Judson Avenue and Nelson Street, near the DNR building, where volunteers and staffers, along with elected officials, will talk with fairgoers. Although McCain and other top Republicans will be in the Twin Cities for the convention, there are no announced plans for a State Fair visit. And even if they are planning one, that’s the kind of thing they’d keep secret until the last minute, for security reasons.
There also will be a separate booth for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, at Cooper Street and Wright Avenue, a block north of the DFL booth. No plans for the candidate or his wife, Michelle, to visit. Instead, surrogates, such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar and local DFLers, will stop by to visit with voters.
U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman — on Underwood, near the Food Building — and Klobuchar — on Judson, across from the Dairy Building — have Fair booths. Both spent a bit of time each year at past Fairs, but Coleman is expected to be a regular on the grounds, as he faces Democratic challenger Al Franken (who was often seen last summer at his booth near the Haunted House and who will try to be even more visible this year.).
Does a Fair presence help politicians? They probably need to be there, meeting and greeting, but the politician I saw the most last year, when I was blogging at the Fair every day, was Mike Ciresi.
Step right up: new and interesting
As always, the Fair offers lots of the traditional attractions, including Grandstand shows that feature the return of Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” country star Brad Paisley and 3 Doors Down. Other big musical acts include the likes of reunited Backstreet Boys, as well as Toby Keith, Gnarls Barkley and the Black Crowes.
There’s also plenty new this year, including a giant Chautauqua tent, behind Heritage Square, to celebrate the state’s sesquicentennial. Like a circus tent, it has seats for 900 and daily will host four free stagings of “Old Minnesota: Song of the North Star.” The shows use stories, songs and big-screen visuals to tell about Minnesota’s natives, European settlers and their descendants.
Also, the International Bazaar, near the Space Tower, has been completely rebuilt and is more open and airy.
And the fair has its first “green” building at Dan Patch Avenue and Cooper Street. Fair officials are proud of the innovation, which was built by AFL-CIO and will house the union’s fair exhibits and activities.
What it’s really all about
No matter all the attractions, for many, the key draw is still the food.
But I was taken aback when glancing at the first item on the list of this year’s new concessions. “Annie’s Pooch Pops.” OMG. Shep on a Stick? Bichon Frappe?
Thankfully, I’d misunderstood. They’re dog treats, sold in the Pet Center. You can also get wine for dogs there. Really.
New people foods?
How about fried bacon on a stick, at Big Fat Bacon on Carnes Street, across from the DNR building.
Or dessert chocolate pizza at the Pizza Shoppe in the Food Building.
Or Leprechaun Legs (deep-fried green beans with dipping sauce) at O’Gara’s in the Food Building.
Or Pig Lickers (chocolate-covered, crisp-fried bacon pieces) at Famous Dave’s, on Dan Patch Avenue, west of the grandstand.
Joe Kimball reports on a variety of subjects, including the Republican National Convention, St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County politics.