State Fair functions in increasingly competitive world

In its early days, Missouri’s State Fair was a September event.

Then, for many years, it began on the third Thursday of August.

But this year’s fair, like others in the past decade, begins Thursday — the second Thursday of the month.

“Schools just keep getting earlier and earlier in their start-dates,” Fair Commission member Lowell Mohler said recently, “and that makes — probably, long-term — more difference to the fair than anything else.”

Noting a lot of the schools start the Tuesday during the fair, he said the first weekend draws huge crowds of FFA and 4-H students.

“If we have a good Friday, Saturday and Sunday that first week, we’re going to have a good Fair. That’s just the way it works,” Mohler said.

“The last Friday and Saturday are important, too.”

Tuesday is the slowest day, with Wednesday pretty close behind, he said

The move to the earlier start-date created another problem for the Missouri Fair’s administrators.

“We’re on the same circuit as Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky,” Mohler noted, “We really have to coordinate things a lot better than we ever did before.”

Another benefit can be entertainment events — like this year’s Toby Keith concert on Aug. 16.

“The only way we got him was,” Mohler said, “he was in Iowa the next day and he was in Springfield, Ill., the day before. So we had a day where we could run that schedule.”

But Mohler doesn’t want people to think running a state fair involves only headaches.

He said Missouri’s Fair has adapted to challenges and has been improving in recent years.

“There was a period where I wondered — every year the Fair was going down in attendance, in physical condition,” he said. “And nothing off-season — we virtually closed the Fairgrounds.”

Now, Mohler said, “Every day, there’s something going on there.

“It may only be a family reunion or an auction of some sort.”

There also are meetings and exhibitions, and animal shows outside the Fair’s 11-day run.

And there are some “big ticket items” each year, Mohler said, like “the largest African-American camper rally in the United States. We’ve got a great off-season team that really works hard at making that schedule.

“And that’s where our money really comes from to make this fair successful year-after-year.”

Missouri’s Fair gets very little money from taxpayers.

“We operate on about a $41⁄2 million budget,” Mohler said, “and we get from the state about $420,000 a year.

“You look at the sales taxes generated during the Fair, and it far offsets any costs to taxpayers.”

Fair operations also have improved in recent years, he said, thanks to corporate sponsorships.

For instance, the Grandstand where concerts and the popular tractor pulls are held has, for a number of years, officially been the “Pepsi Grandstand.”

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years — each year’s Fair has a theme.

“Chicks dig it” is this year’s theme.

The idea came from a child’s artwork, showing baby chickens playing with a boy.

But it’s also a pun, of sorts.

“We have a special recognition of women in agriculture,” Mohler said. “We’re making a special effort this year to highlight a lot of the women, and the role they play in agriculture.”

Women’s role in agriculture hasn’t been ignored in the past, he said, but it hasn’t always been celebrated.

“I think it’s time we did that,” Mohler said. “It’s really appropriate.”

This year’s Fair runs from Aug. 8-18.

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