Tighter security is at the top of the list of what's new at the Minnesota State Fair. The annual 12-day fair opens Thursday, with many of the security adjustments that have become more common for public gatherings since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But fair officials and vendors say their biggest concern, as always, is the weather.
Inside the newly-renovated state fair food building, vendor Paul Hanson is stocking the freezer at his expanded Walleye On a Stick booth. Hanson is a 12-year veteran of the fair, but all food building occupants were forced to reapply this year for space in the remodeled facility. He says he's pleased with his larger booth and better location. Hanson says he expects a lot of business.
"I think with what's been done, it's definitely a 'can't miss.' If you go to the fair, you've got to go to the food building - even if you don't eat anything - just to see all the vendors and the stands and stuff," Hanson says.
Fair officials gutted the food building, which first opened in the late 1940s. They installed new mechanicals, ventilation and flooring, and brought the building up to current standards. The number of vendors was also cut from 37 to 30. The booths are larger, and customers have a bit more room to maneuver.
Across the aisle at Country Coffee and Scones, co-owner Lynn Gordon is also happy with the building, and optimistic about business. She says most food vendors she's talked with are anticipating a big year.
"We feel that people - after Sept. 11 are ... bonding more with their families, doing more traditional activities. And what could be more mom-and-apple-pie than the Minnesota State Fair?" Gordon says.
Fair officials have taken several steps behind the scenes to protect that "apple pie" feeling this year. New security measures include background checks on fair employees, emergency response plans and daily security sweeps of buildings. Fair spokeswoman Danyl Zamber says the public will notice some of the changes.
"They will notice if they go to the grandstand, that bags and jackets will be checked this year, which is something we haven't done in the past," Zamber says. "But as you know, pretty much everywhere you go to a venue they do that nowadays. There should be a visible amount of more policemen and security people on the grounds. There's going to be about 150 more than normal."
Fair officials are also limiting vehicle access to the grounds. Even during the days leading up to the fair, security guards screened each car or truck attempting to enter. Only those with official business were allowed in.
Longtime food vendors like Jess Kingen say the fairgrounds have been noticeably quieter this week. The restrictions get even stricter when the fair opens. Kingen says the new vehicle rules could make it harder for food booths to get their supplies.
"A lot of it will have to be brought from the parking lots by hand through the crowds, and everybody's going to have to do it," says Kingen. "So it makes it tougher for the suppliers, because they have to be out of here by 8 a.m. So everybody has to be stocked by 8 a.m., which is a big job every morning."
Kingen's family has operated Jim and Jo's Footlong Chili Dogs near the midway since 1946. He's seen a lot of ups and downs in business over the years, and is never sure what to expect.
"Whatever happens, happens. I don't really worry about it, just do the best you can and come back next year," Kingen says. "You can have a week of rain that hurts you more than anything else. So if the weather's nice, usually it's pretty good."
While vendors ponder the economy and the weather, horseowners are thinking about the West Nile virus. The mosquito-borne disease has infected nearly 100 horses in Minnesota this summer. But spokeswoman Danyl Zamber says mosquitoes are not a threat at the state fair, and neither is West Nile.
"Between all the spraying that Minneapolis and St. Paul does, the population of mosquitoes this year is not bad at all. We've actually been tested for mosquitoes and there is no need to even spray here," says Zamber. "There are no warnings or anything out by the board of animal health that says we need to look at records for animals coming in. So right now we're good to go, and a lot of the animals here are vaccinated already."
The Minnesota State Fair set an attendance record last year with 1.76 million people. The fair runs through Labor Day, Sept. 2.More from MPR