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State Fair's response to another record year? Get bigger

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Crowds pack the streets and the sky ride on the first day of the Fair.
Crowds pack the streets and the sky ride on the first day of the Minnesota State Fair Aug. 23, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The Minnesota State Fair has one thing to say about the throngs that have been setting attendance records in recent years.

More.

"You know, even on our biggest days, there's plenty of room for people," said general manager Jerry Hammer. And even as attendance topped the 2 million mark for the first time ever, the fair is getting ready to expand again with a $14 million makeover for the northwest corner, poised to break ground next month.

Don't worry, Hammer says. 

"The fair was more crowded 30 years ago, 35 years ago."  

A ferris wheel turns as people check out John Deere tractors.
A Ferris wheel turns as people check out John Deere tractors at the Minnesota State Fair.
Evan Frost | MPR News

That's back when the crowd was actually about half a million people smaller — 1.6 million in 1988 and 1.3 million in 1983. It was also back in the day when combines and tractors were a visible presence and the fair's north end used to practically go dark after dinner time. That pushed huge crowds toward the grandstand and Como Avenue during the prime evening hours.

No more.

Starting with the remake of the International Bazaar a decade ago, followed by the new West End Market in 2014 and a reboot of the north side this year, the fair has managed to supersize — while still hemmed in by railroad tracks, the University of Minnesota and Snelling Avenue, St. Paul's main north-south drag.

And while the tractors may be gone, the animal competitions are more popular than ever among both entrants and fairgoers who are packing the aisles between the animal stalls.

Fairgoers peruse bovine beasts inside the cow barn.
Fairgoers peruse bovine beasts inside the cow barn.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"They're not going away," Hammer said. "There's really not any more space available around the fair, so what we're doing is using all the space we have, the best way we can."

Some of that effort is visible: a new pet pavilion this year allowed a food vendor to open a new dining and beer hall, in turn making room for a giant new Sweet Martha's cookie outlet — all on what used to be Machinery Hill. That draws in some of the crowds that usually gather around the original Martha's location on Carnes Avenue and another one adjacent to the grandstand.

Three giant new restroom complexes have also opened on the fair's edges in the past five years and new park and ride lots opened in Arden Hills and White Bear Township this year.

And some of it isn't so visible.

The fair moved its employment center across Como Avenue away from the fairgrounds this year. In 2017 the fair installed one of the biggest telecommunications systems in the Midwest — second only to Ohio State University — built to handle a huge surge in mobile phone use.

"This year, we spent $3 1/2 million on electric upgrades alone to the north end," Hammer said.

Minnesota mosaic at the Minnesota State Fair
A postcard-style "Greetings from Minnesota" mosaic on the east side of the Food Building at the Minnesota State Fair.
Luke Taylor | MPR

And some of the capacity you might not even recognize when you're looking at it. The fair, for instance, has doubled its free entertainment budget in the last dozen years, according to deputy general manager Renee Alexander.

"This year we had 900 shows. Where do you see ... 900 shows in 12 days?" said Alexander, who books another big attraction, the grandstand shows. "It is really increasing that capacity on the entertainment side as well."

The free shows have also come to include well-known acts like George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, the Pointer Sisters and the Tower of Power, drawing huge crowds to the Leine Lodge Bandshell stage.

Next year will have even more entertainment. The $14 million makeover is scheduled to open for next year's fair and will include a new performing arts space, as well as a new traveling exhibit hall nearly as big as the Dairy Building on the south side of the fair.

But is there such thing as too big for the State Fair? Can it attract too many people? If you've waited in line outside a restroom or found the park and ride lots full before you can even get to lunch on opening day, frustration may be getting to be a fair tradition as well.

Hammer said there are a few hours during the peak days of the fair every year that look crowded in places.

But without a way to accurately gauge how many people are actually on the grounds — attendance is only counted at the end of the night — and with nowhere to send people if they had to be turned away, Hammer says the 322-acre fairgrounds will just have to make room for more.

"If you go up above and look, ride the Space Tower on the busiest day, look down and there's space all over the place," Hammer said. "And you want to see people vanish in a hurry, have it start raining and the streets just empty. There's no problem with those huge crowds all moving away, and as soon as it stops, they're all back outside."