INDIANAPOLIS – A cliché-minded football coach might call this a rebuilding year for the Indiana State Fair.
When the 17-day fair kicks off today, there will be no big-ticket concerts at the Indiana State Fairgrounds or downtown. No official signature food item. No ring-side views of the popular draft horse hitch competitions (because it’s taking place in a new Youth Arena that is not equipped with a safety wall).
And nothing is scheduled in the coliseum, which is in the midst of a $53 million upgrade – unless you count public tours that will be offered for the curious.
Still, executive director Cindy Hoye – who prefers to call this a transition year – says plenty of new features and old traditions will entice people to the 156th annual fair, the sixth-oldest in the country.
This is a unique year, Hoye said. But I also can’t recall a year when we’ve had so many new things for people to see.
Among this year’s highlights: A $3 million glass barn built by the Indiana Soybean Alliance as a high-tech, interactive way to teach kids (and adults) about modern farming in Indiana.
Situated on the north side of the fairgrounds, the 4,500-square-foot, glass-paneled structure is a unique seed-to-plate excursion with real farmers who explain how they use modern technology along with traditional practices to produce food.
It’s a top priority for farmers to show consumers how we produce the food we eat, said Kevin Wilson, a soybean farmer and president of the Soybean Alliance, a statewide board that oversees soybean farmers’ contributions (checkoff dollars) to fund research and educational activities. People don’t realize how farms have improved.
Also new this year, the $10 million Youth Arena – with a floor flexible enough to accommodate ice skating, hockey and 4-H animal shows – will open on the south side of the coliseum and become the focal point for many events.
And in a bid to appeal to families with tiny tots, a new midway for kiddies will be unveiled at the opposite end of Main Street, near the Fall Creek Parkway main entrance. It will have 10 smaller rides and less congestion than the bigger midway.
We really think families are going to like this opportunity, said Hoye. For some with really young children, the midway might be a little overwhelming. So this is going to be more relaxed, lower-key experience.
The cost for either midway will be the same, and the tickets and unlimited-ride wristbands will work in either.
There also will be plenty of odd attractions, some familiar and some not. There’s the giant popcorn ball in honor of the fair’s Year of Popcorn; the world’s largest pig; and the usual array of deep-fried treats, such as bacon-glazed doughnut holes.
Hoye, who is in her 26th year at the fair (ninth as its executive director), acknowledged the closure of the coliseum will mean some changes for traditional livestock events, the biggest one being the cancellation of the annual 4-H Grand Champion Drive and Sale of Champions.
Those two events have been replaced by animal-specific celebration awards to the top animals in each category, taking place at the individual animal barns rather than in one place.
And instead of live viewing of the draft horse hitching competitions, the public will watch from afar on a giant video screen. The biggest reason: Safety. Without a protective wall, the fast-moving hitched wagons could pose a danger to spectators.
We have very creatively programmed this to make it work, Hoye said. We could have not had the draft horses; that was a choice. But we feel people love to walk into the barns and just look at the horses, and they love to see them being hitched up.
None of this should be an issue next year, as plans call for the newly renovated coliseum (currently without a name or corporate sponsor) to be open by the 2014 fair.
Next year we will be mixing animal shows and concerts in the coliseum, she said.
The remodeling of the coliseum will mark the eventual return of live, big-ticket concerts. The long-time tradition of on-site, big-name concerts ended two years ago after the tragic stage collapse that killed seven and injured 60 people.
Attendance at last year’s fair was 853,941, the lowest it has been in five years. Much of that was blamed on last year’s summer heat and the ever-moving target of school-start dates.
This year’s goal is 850,000, which Hoye said is achievable, weather permitting.
As for the 17-day schedule – which began in 2009 as a way to accommodate families with school kids with three weekends rather than two (under the old 12-day schedule) – fair officials say they will decide later this fall whether or not to stick to the expanded schedule for another three years beginning in 2015. The 2014 schedule is already locked in at 17 days.
We evaluate the schedule every year, and that is an ongoing conversation, Hoye said.