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Ahead Of Illinois State Fair, Questions Of Success Linger

Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois 91.9 FM
Illinois Department of Agriculture Director John Sullivan addresses a crowd at the Illinois State Fairgrounds on Aug. 1. At far right, fair manager Kevin Gordon.

Ahead of the start of the Illinois State Fair next week, organizers say they’re optimistic about attendance and attractions. But the fair’s success is an open question.

The event has faced a number of challenges in recent years. A central exhibition building had to be closed several years ago for emergency repairs, attendance has dwindled, and some vendors have balked at rising costs. Deferred maintenance costs had ballooned to nearly $180 million dollars by 2018.

State Fair manager Kevin Gordon says the admission price was raised back in 2016 — from $7 to $10. The number of people that came through the gate dropped by almost a third as a result, which hurt the fair's bottom line.

This year officials are reversing course, charging just $5 dollars between Sunday and Thursday of fair week. Gordon says he hopes that will actually boost sales.

“Weather plays a small part in this and then there’s a couple other factors that figure into it, [but] we should make more money this year, at the gate, than we have in the last three years," he said.

Food vendors will also be lowering prices on some items during the afternoon. The idea, Gordon says, is to stay competitive.

“We’re a little different, obviously, than the Indiana State Fair," he explained. "I mean, they’re drawing from Indianapolis. Look at the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis, just right outside of Milwaukee. We’ve got to be a little bit more creative to bring people in the door and try to come up with promotions like this.”

An estimated 370,000 people attended last year’s Illinois State Fair. Gordon says he’s anticipating closer to half a million this year.

Fair officials are also banking on a newly-reopened Coliseum building, fifty new vendors, and a high-profile concert series to draw crowds. Whether they actually come will depend on timing, and if the weather cooperates.

Meanwhile, Illinois Department of Agriculture Director John Sullivan says he’s gotten a slew of letters and calls ahead of this year’s fair about hemp. Farmers are now allowed to plant and process the plant, which is a non-hallucinogenic cousin of marijuana. This year’s fair will feature a demonstration plot, allowing the public to see the plant up close.

Sullivan says workers have addressed needed repairs to the fairgrounds en masse this year. Building infrastructure and road improvements, scheduled to continue through the end of the year, total an estimated $27 million.

Sam is a Public Affairs Reporting intern for spring 2018, working out the NPR Illinois Statehouse bureau.
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