Aside from stalwart animal-lovers who wanted to watch live dog and cat surgeries in the Pet Center or skateboarders looking to catch some new twists, the north end of the Minnesota State Fairgrounds hasn't drawn a lot of traffic. Nothing like the clustered corridors flanking the Food Building or streets leading to the barns or Grandstand.
But when the 2018 Minnesota State Fair opens Thursday in Falcon Heights, fairgoers may want to head that way.
"It was thin," State Fair spokeswoman Danielle Dullinger says about the north end. "There wasn't a whole lot going on up there."
The buildings closed an hour early, Dullinger says. Bordered by a campground on the east and parking lots on the north and west, the area offered little for food beyond Giggles Campfire Grill. And only Giggles and the Midway Men's Club stand sold beer.
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Last year, the addition of the 15-story-tall Great Big Wheel near Baldwin Park helped draw fairgoers to the north, Dullinger tells the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and it will be back.
But beyond the Ferris wheel, the north end has been the focus of buckets of changes. The biggest is a new destination for food and craft beer, The Hangar. (The building was home to the State Fair aircraft shows in the early 1900s.) The Hangar is run by the folks who had the Texas Steak Out at the Fair in previous years, and the menu has slider flights, smoked turkey legs, brisket sandwiches, ice cream and beverages curated by the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild. There will be indoor seating and entertainment.
The Hangar replaces the Pet Center, which moved east into a new open-air pavilion. Pet surgeries and dog-breed booths will be in the new pavilion, with a merchandise tent and a new outdoor demonstration area nearby.
And smack dab in the middle of the north end is a huge new restroom — the sixth new restroom on the Fairgrounds in the past 10 years, Dullinger says. This restroom is flush with 54 toilets, 18 family restrooms, eight drinking fountains and four water-bottle stations.
The X-Zone, with its BMX and skateboard shows and demos, is now east of the Hangar. Expo Place, where daily events such as fire safety demonstrations on Governor's Fire Prevention Day take place, is next to X-Zone.
The Giant Sing Along, a field of microphones facing a big screen for group karaoke, has been moved to just south of the new restroom. Showtunes and musicals have been added to the singalong choices at noon and 7 p.m.
And a third Sweet Martha's Cookie Jar location sits just across Underwood Street from the Sing Along. Around the side of the building is a cookie-shaped window where fans of the gooey discs can watch the cookies get mixed and baked.
A new diagonal sidewalk cuts through it all.
The North Woods area in the north has always had a full schedule of outdoorsy activities. "It was always there and always happening. We're hoping just a few more faces show up," Dullinger said.
So if the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in Falcon Heights covers 322 acres, just how long would it take to walk from, say, the Swine Barn at the southwest corner to the new north end? Dullinger drove the distance and measured nine-tenths of a mile. That's about 10 blocks and a 15- to 20-minute walk without a crowd, she figures.
With a crowd? That's hard to say. Especially if the changes bring more people to the north end.
A few more updates
Ye Old Mill: The Fair took over the oldest ride on the Fairgrounds in January after the Keenan family had owned and operated it for five generations. The Mill got some fresh paint, a new paddlewheel and a new motor (the original was patented in 1888 and Dullinger figures the one in the Mill was installed in 1915). "It's still the same old Ye Old Mill," Dullinger says, "the original Tunnel of Love, the same ride your grandparents rode."
Compeer Arena: It used to be called AgStar Arena. Only the name has changed.
Pronto Pup HQ: The former Robbinsdale OES Dining Hall is now the headquarters for the battered, deep-fried wiener on a stick. There's a window for Pupsters who want to see the tubesteaks stabbed, dunked and fried.