The Wisconsin State Fair is more than a century old. But what will it look like in the future? Wochit
WEST ALLIS - If you want to know about the future of the Wisconsin State Fair, look no further than morning rush hour inside the swine and goat barn.
This is the State Fair in all its crowded, aromatic glory. Pigs tended by their owners slip by kids in strollers while overhead five giant fans work overtime to move the air.
The celebration of all things agricultural is at the heart of the State Fair. That will never change. But a few updates would be awfully nice.
"What we need with the swine barn is we need to expand, we need more room, we need a better layout and we need better electrical," said John Yingling, who chairs the Wisconsin State Fair Park Board.
While the 166th State Fair was in action this week, Yingling showed off the nearly 200-acre fairgrounds. He pointed to the future at an event rooted in Wisconsin's past.
From 1851 on, the State Fair has kept pace with the times to become what it is today: a mash-up of concerts, rides, games, shopping, livestock and fried food, a something-for-everyone that represents a vision of Wisconsin.
Attendance now tops 1 million annually. In the just-ended fiscal year, State Fair Park will show a profit of $1.6 million, Yingling said. Up to $1 million annually is invested back into the grounds, he said.
The fair evolves, even today.
The old west side market has been taken down, replaced by a splash of asphalt that is now the temporary home of the Big Wheel, North America's largest traveling Ferris wheel.
"We're landlocked every square inch of these grounds," Yingling said, showing off the Big Wheel. "This was the most underutilized part of the grounds. What's good for one thing, what's good for this, also puts more pressure on other things."
So the search is always on to improve. For example, something fairgoers may not notice is that overhead electrical wires are gone, buried in a $6 million renovation.
In the years ahead, Yingling would like to see renovations in the agriculture village as well as the Tommy G. Thompson Youth Center, which includes dormitory-style rooms for kids who come from across the state.
But the biggest project on the horizon is an overhaul of the Original Cream Puff Building, housed in a near century-old structure. Fundraising is already underway for the $6 million renovation and expansion. If all goes well, a revamped building could be completed by 2020.
Cream puffs are big business, with more than 400,000 sold annually at the fair. But the facility is cramped — empty boxes are piled high to the ceiling and workers use every inch of space.
At various points on the tour, Yingling talked about the spaces as a blank canvas. Even though he didn't say it, the biggest canvas right now is the racetrack.
The Milwaukee Mile was once the home of big-time auto racing. It's still used for driving schools, testing and club racing.
The area provides key parking, with 7,200 spaces, and is the main concert venue. Yingling said there is room for other stages, perhaps at the turns.
There are no plans to take down the track, Yingling said.
"We're always looking at racing and how to bring back racing," he said. "We're always using the track. It is used 30, 35 weekends a year. It brings in some revenue to the park. It's just not being used the way it was back in the '60's and '70's when there were seven races a year."
Kathleen O'Leary, chief executive officer of State Fair Park, said while racing is in a state of transition she is looking to use the track for "non-traditional events."
"We have the infrastructure to have a country festival, a rock festival, an indie festival," she said.
O'Leary's vision for the State Fair, now and in the future, is crystal clear.
"I see it as the last bastion of Americana where the agricultural aspect is the cornerstone of what we are," she said. "We are the showcase of everything that is agricultural. And that is not just the nearly 10,000 animals we'll have on these grounds over the 11 days."
"It's horticulture. It's about culinary. Agriculture is so broad in its spectrum," she added.
The State Fair, she said, "is about bringing families and people together to celebrate and enjoy everything that we should be so proud of in Wisconsin. That is how it has been since 1851, 166 years ago. It's how it has been here at Wisconsin State Fair Park for the last 125 years and I foresee this moving forward in the decades."
Whatever the entertainment trends are, O'Leary said the State Fair will stay ahead of the curve.
O'Leary's vision matches what a lot of fairgoers say they savor about the event.
"I never miss a fair," said Nancy Simoneau, who grew up five blocks from the fairgrounds. The other day, she was showing off the fair to her 12-year-old grandson Jake Trotter.
"We always get a cream puff," she said. "I like to stop for a beer and a fried mozzarella at Saz's, then a corn dog, baked potato. And after that, I don't eat for three days."
The State Fair reminds her of old times.
"It feels like the end of summer," she said.
Kim Bridenhoagen came down to the fair from Door County with her teenage daughters, Allison and Sarah. They adored the fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, topped off by fried spaghetti and meatballs.
But they would have liked a few more events to appeal to teenagers.
"You see a lot of people who are 70 years old or young families with kids and not a lot in-between," Bridenhoagen said.
Over at one of the barns, Janel Bader of Monroe was thrilled with the fair. Her daughter Aspen had a reserve champion Hereford. Bader said that since May, Aspen and her younger sister Alexa worked four hours a day to prepare the animal.
"I hope the fair stays like this," Bader said. "I see the dedication and hard work and ethics instilled in our children and that's important."