Learning Land Use Lessons at the Minnesota State Fair

The Fair works.

This year, 1.8 million visitors attended the Minnesota State Fair, breaking the previous record for annual attendance. Our enthusiasm for the Fair is both cause and result of a single fact: For two weeks every year, it’s an incredibly successful place. 

I know the Fair is a seasonal event, a carnival, and that not everything that makes the Fair successful can be applied to Main Street. At the same time, the Fair achieves what those of us involved in redevelopment seek to do with places: Make them economically and socially viable for the long term, and make them work for the people who live, work and visit there. 

3877060792_c2bcbfe0a7_m After 150 years in operation and 125 years at its current location, the Fair is more than viable – it’s vital. What’s to learn?

New and old each have value. The Fair as an institution dates to 1859, and it’s occupied its current site since 1885. Over the last 125 years, we’ve built open spaces, barns, the Grandstand and other permanent structures. Vendor stalls and exhibits have come and gone, changed or remained as timepieces. Others are new this year. In between are incidental spaces to put up feet away from the crowd. We connect to redeveloped spaces with a relationship to their past; they convey authenticity.

Mix it up. Who can imagine the Grandstand without its hosting evening shows while serving as a forum for small merchants below? Placing the Eco-Experience Center adjacent to the petroleum-oriented Machinery Hill challenges us to see the Fair as truly a big-tent event. The land use blends food preparation with political exchange, exhibits for children with crop art, places of religion with bandshells. It also provides an experience for patrons who arrive with a roll of bills, and those who visit on a tighter budget. But the core element of success is its vital (even chaotic) mix, a combination that many of today’s zoning ordinances would discourage on Main Street or in commercial districts.

Reinvest. The Fair’s private and public roles are mixed, too. In my limited experience working food stands at the Fair, the pace – of people and dollars changing hands – can reach a fever pitch. That’s possible because the infrastructure at and around the Fair can sustain nearly two million visits in less than two weeks. State Fair revenues fund operation and maintenance of the streets and the Grandstand, and private investment provides for much of the vending infrastructure. It's all closely located and maximizes the existing systems, meaning that gate receipts can support reinvestment in what's there, as opposed to funding wayward and costly expansion.

As a consultant interested in making places more effective, it’s impossible for me not to take notice of the durable place that is the Minnesota State Fair.

Photo: Courtesy of Mike Keliher.

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