The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 7, 2014

Fair's fate to be decided Thursday

For $5, residents can become shareholders and cast a ballot on proposed move

By Mark Fischenich
The Mankato Free Press

---- — The future of the Blue Earth County Fair will be decided Thursday night during a meeting at Bethany Lutheran College — or maybe, like political elections, the outcome will be determined by get-out-the-vote efforts in the days leading up to the election.

Shareholders at Thursday’s meeting will vote on whether to sell the picturesque but isolated fairgrounds in Garden City that have been the fair’s home for more than 150 years. The Fair Board has determined the fair, which has been losing money in recent years and has depleted its reserves, must move to Mankato to survive.

The decision, though, will be made by the fair’s shareholders, and that group is growing by the day.

Shares — and the right to vote at the meeting — are being sold for the longstanding price of $5 to individuals at Buster’s on Madison Avenue from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5-7 p.m. through Wednesday. People also can become shareholders for the same price from 4:45-5:45 p.m. Thursday at Bethany immediately preceding the vote.

Unlike corporate stocks, however, one individual can’t buy up multiple shares and multiple votes. Still, the Fair Board expects a lot more county residents to be weighing in on the decision than the 87 or so shareholders who existed when the meeting was first set.

“We’re shooting for about 300 people to show up,” said Matt Little, a Fair Board member and Buster’s owner.

The meeting is set to begin at 6 p.m. at the Ronald J. Younge Gymnasium. Following a short presentation on the board’s proposal to create a new fairgrounds, the voting is scheduled to commence at 6:20 p.m. Shareholders who want to cast a ballot and leave will be allowed to, but those wishing to comment and ask questions will be able to do so long after the voting begins.

The meeting will be moderated by Bryan Stading, executive director and senior business facilitator at the Regional Center for Entrepreneurial Facilitation.

“Our focus is to let the public know the reason we’re (proposing the move from Garden City) and making sure their voice is heard,” Little said.

Attendees also will get a first look at the board’s vision of what a new Mankato-based fairgrounds might look like. Graphics prepared by a pair of local architectural/engineering firms show a proposed layout with multiple large parking lots, a carnival midway on one end, a modern grandstand and racetrack on the other, and more than a dozen new buildings to house exhibits, livestock, vendors and 4-H competitors.

It also includes an ice arena, which youth hockey boosters have been pursuing and could allow the facility and its parking lots to be used throughout the year.

Little said the renderings aren’t meant to be seen as a guaranteed final design if the move is approved by shareholders but rather a realistic vision of what a newly constructed fairgrounds could look like.

While it dwarfs the existing fairgrounds in size, amenities and organizational design, it’s missing the century-old oak trees, the curving Watonwan River that borders the Garden City site on three sides and the decades of nostalgia that the 154-year-old fairgrounds provides for longtime fair-goers. The problem, especially in the past few years, is there haven’t been many of those fair-goers.

Attendance has plunged to about 5,000 — a third as many as there were as recently as six years ago.

“We want people to hear our hopes and dreams for moving the fair,” Fair Board President Kelly Marks told The Free Press last month. “It’s not so much we’re moving the fair as we’re saving the fair.”

No specific parcel has been identified as the potential new home of the fair. A number of options, including hoped-for land donations, are being pursued, Little said. All the sites have certain characteristics, however, including a location within a two-mile radius of Mankato, a rural/agricultural ambiance and proximity to an existing highway for easy access and high visibility.