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July 28, 2013

It’s the ‘Year of Popcorn’ at the Indiana State Fair

Officials looking at ways to reverse declining attendance

INDIANAPOLIS — Officials with the Indiana State Fair have long known that withering heat and extended rain dampen the number of fair-goers, but now they have another factor to contend with: the increasingly early arrival of the school year.

Across Indiana, K-12 schools are moving up their start date, with many transitioning into what’s called a “balanced” school year that significantly shortens the traditional summer vacation.

More than a dozen school districts in central Indiana are starting school before the 17-day fair gets underway Friday and more than a dozen more will start the first full week of the fair. That includes the school district that surrounds the fairgrounds, the Indianapolis Public Schools, the state’s largest school district with more than 33,000 students.

Those early start dates translate into a lot of empty midway rides and uneaten corn dogs on the weekdays that once saw a steady flow of patrons.

“It’s a never-ending challenge for us,” said Andy Klotz, a State Fair spokesman.

Back in 2009, the fair changed to its current 17-day format, up from 12 days. The change, which added a critical third weekend to the schedule, was made to accommodate the trend toward the earlier school start date already underway. And it worked: Fair officials saw record attendance of 973,902 visitors.

The numbers have dropped since. Last year’s attendance was the second lowest in 10 years, but still impressive at 853,941. The small but steady decline has revived a question that’s been asked again and again: Could Indiana move up its state fair start date?  

So far, the answer has been ‘No’ and may remain so. “We’ve got all those county fairs that feed into the state fair,” said Klotz. It’s those county fairs where thousands of young 4-H members compete for the honor to bring their prize animals and projects to the state fair. This year, there will be about 15,000 4-H exhibits – from prize pies to prize pigs – on display.

So for now, state fair organizers are relying on a mix of fair traditions and new features to lure in the crowds.

One tradition that’s returned: All the music concerts are back at the fairgrounds and they’re free, with the price of admission. Last year, fair officials held their paid concerts at the Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis. They’d been moved off the fairgrounds after the tragedy that marked the 2011 fair: The collapse of stage rigging before an outdoor concert at the fairgrounds, which killed seven people.

But attendance at those off-site concerts was low, and that cut deep into the fair’s profits. “We realized people want to be here at the fair,” Klotz. “They don’t want to leave the fairgrounds, even for a big concert.”

Another change this year: The fairground’s flagship indoor venue, the Pepsi Coliseum, is still undergoing a $63 million renovation so it won’t be in use, though it will be open for visitors to take a peek at the work under way. The livestock shows and other events usually held in the coliseum have been moved to other venues on the fairgrounds.

This year’s theme, as in the past, is focused on an Indiana agricultural product. It’s the “Year of Popcorn” which visitors will notice right away in the many popcorn-themed food booth and exhibits, including a popcorn maze, free popcorn in the Farm Bureau Building, and what fair officials are calling the “World’s Largest Popcorn Ball.” It was still in the making last week, but had already grown to more than 5,200 pounds in weight.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com

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