By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
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 — including Alexandria (Tuesday) and Elwood (Wednesday) — 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 state fair start date earlier?
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 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 moved paid concerts to 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 said. “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. It won’t be in use, though it will be open for visitors to take a peek at the work in progress. 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 email@example.com.
If you go What: 2013 Indiana State Fair When: Aug. 2-18 Where: Indiana State Fairgrounds, 38th Street and Fall Creek Parkway, Indianapolis Hours: Gates open daily at 8 a.m.; no admittance after 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Gates open at 6 a.m. for the Giant Hot Air Balloon Launch on Aug. 10. Building/exhibit hours are generally 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. throughout the fair. (Exposition Hall is open 10 a.m. - 9 p.m. daily.) Admission: $10 at the gate for anyone 6 and older; children 5 and younger get in free; $7 advance discount tickets are available online at www.indianastatefair.com Parking: Available on a first-come, first-served basis inside the State Fairgrounds for $5 a vehicle. There is additional paid parking around the fairgrounds, with shuttle transportation at some venues. New at the fair Visitors to the Indiana State Fair will see a return of the traditional fair offerings, including livestock shows, free stage entertainment, 4-H exhibits, food booths a-plenty, and a midway of carnival rides and games. Here are just a few of the new offerings this year: (diamond) The Glass Barn -- A Clear Look at the Farming Experience: The Indiana Soybean Alliance has designed and built a 4,500-square-foot glass-paneled barn on the north side of the fairgrounds. It's filled with interactive games and activities designed to educate visitors on how farming works and how food is produced. (diamond) Get Animated: Get Animated is an 8,000-square-foot exhibit inside the Grand Hall on Main Street. It's an interactive experience that takes visitors through the history of animation. (diamond) Kiddie Land Midway: The fair's traditional midway, with rides and games, is still there. But this year, there is also a new midway just for young children. It's located away from the larger midway, on the fairgrounds' northeast side (off Gate 6). (diamond) Rosstyn Ice Shows: Outdoor ice shows will be performed on a 40-by-40 skating rink in Dow AgroSciences Celebration Park on the fairgrounds' northwest side. The rink is covered by a clear-span, engineered tent with bleacher seating for up to 800 spectators. (diamond) Indiana State Fair App: Available for both iOS and Android phones, the new state fair app has several different maps for visitors to plan their trip and locate their favorite fair food booths and exhibits. It also has a new built-in sharing mechanism that allows users to post comments and photos to their Facebook and Twitter networks. Users will also receive special announcements and discount opportunities. To see a complete listing of fair offerings, including special discount prices, go to the State Fair's website, www.in.gov/statefair/fair