The Wisconsin State Fair confronted two significant challenges this year - an internal scandal made public three months before the fair and a violent, near city-wide protest during the final weekend of the fair.
In May, Rick Frenette, an industry veteran who had been Executive Director of the fair since 2010, was fired. The dismissal, the result of dispute over salary increases and bonuses, was a local scandal well covered in the Wisconsin media. Kathleen O'Leary, who was the chief operating officer, was named interim Executive Director, taking the helm for the 2016 event, allowing the dust to settle from the controversy, and postponing the search for Frenette's replacement until after the fair.
The other challenge was the closing weekend of the fair coincided with a tragedy that has become all too familiar in the U.S. On August 13, Milwaukee police lethally shot a 23 year old African American, setting off two days of rioting, which include burning of a gas station, buildings and cars as well as violent confrontations with police and citizens in the Sherman Park neighborhood of the city, less than six miles from the fairgrounds. The entire city was tense and on alert, and no place more so than the highest profile of the year for the city - The Wisconsin State Fair.
O'Leary said that any lingering negative publicity from the dismissal had long faded by opening day. "The 2016 fair was very successful," said O'Leary. "the challenges we as a staff faced, I feel we did an exceptional job. We bill the fair as the Greatest 11 days of Summer, it was a celebration of Agriculture and Wisconsin."
Just prior to opening day of the fair, O'Leary announced she would be "vying for the position," of Executive Director, a search expected to begin this month (September).
She credited Frenette with putting together a very talented staff and everything moved forward. "Attendance was down slightly, but revenue was up. Spin City was up 2 percent. At the onset, when I took the helm of this great fair, there was a concern but we had a successful fair."
In addition to an uptick in Spin City revenue, the fair had two sold out shows, Shawn Mendes and Rascal Flatts, with approximately 10,000 in attendance.
The 2016 fair, which also was 165th Wisconsin State Fair, had 1,015,815 attendance, while a dip of about 20,000 compared to 2015 - a record year - it marked the 4th consecutive year of attendance topping one million. State Fair attendance the past 3 years: 1,012,552 in 2013, 1,030,881 in 2014 and 1,033,053 in 2015.
The closing day was one of the best closing days in this four year run of success, but mainly because the fair immediately responded to the Sherman Park shooting incident. O'Leary described Milwaukee, after the police shooting and citizen protests, "as a city of unrest, there was a terrible fallout after the incident. We are in an urban setting and to have rioting so close to our fair was unnerving, But there wasn't a place in Milwaukee that was safer than the fair."
She praised law enforcement, which came from several jurisdictions and precincts as well as 30 state troopers. "We all worked together, and set up a command post. We created a safe environment without imposing on our guests."
With violent incidents dominating the headlines, most fairs reexamined their security procedures and implemented new protocols. The Wisconsin State Fair was no exception, this year they installed metal detectors at the gates. O'Leary said costs exceeded $25,000 which included reconfiguring seven gates to handle the system, as well as enhancing staff and training personnel. "It was not an easy decision, but safety is our most important seller," said O'Leary. "It was the right decision, considering the world we live in today. Guests had a sense of security they hadn't had before, and people are used to security procedures. We didn't really receive any complaints, but people are used to higher security. It's the world we live in."
Weather was generally cooperative, although periods of rain and heat probably accounted for much of the decline in attendance. "Wisconsin is open to intense heat, but even with some storms on opening day, we had a record breaking weekend, she said. "We did have some record breaking heat, it got extremely hot, and heat is the nemesis, heat can be ten times worse than rain. Families, especially those with younger kids, either don't come out in the heat."
The weather was ideal by closing weekend, which O'Leary said was record breaking. "I think there was pent up demand, and a validation that when we get the weather, they want to come out to the fair."
While O'Leary declined to disclose total fair revenue figures, "our preliminary numbers are up," she said. "There is no more affordable entertainment spending than the Wisconsin State Fair, for the price of admission and the multiple discounts we offer, that the people of Wisconsin love the fair. People in Wisconsin are fiscally prudent, how you spend the dollar is important, and even things are better comically, they come to the fair for the value."
She added, "Fairs are the last bastion of Americana, and our mission is to showcase the Agricultural industry, and all the positive attributes of the ag industry. Wisconsin's agricultural industry - according to O'Leary - has been healthy in recent years, and entries, competitions and other indications of the industry "are on part with last year."
For the agricultural exhibitors, O'Leary implemented a new receivership policy - rescheduling when large trucks load and unload during the fair. "This was a large change in the how we handle the trucks," said O'Leary. "We simplified the procedures and made it easy and convenient for our exhibitors, and less disturbing for the fair. It was incredibly successful, we improved the timing of the rigs and they moved into clean barns. It was a relatively significant change, although very subtle."
The fair did implemented a new promotion, Humana Senior Day, which "did very well. But Kohl's Family Value Day was our most successful promotion in terms of attendance - we had a record breaking Monday this year, the day of the promotion, with more than 90,000 in attendance.
The fair used Snapchat for the first time this year, and were also featured in a national snapchat story featuring "State Fair Foods," "which was very exciting and lots of fun," said Kristi Chuckel, Communications & Marketing Manager.
The Wisconsin State Fair has one of the largest selections of fair cuisine among all the Midwest fairs, with more than 200 vendors every year. According to Chuckel,, there were more than 80 new food vendors. In addition, an estimated 315,000 Original Cream Puffs - a signature food of the Wisconsin State Fair - were sold, as well as 105,000 ears of corn, 55,000 Real Wisconsin Cheese grilled cheese sandwiches, 50,000 Wisconsin Baked Potatoes were sold in the Wisconsin Products Pavilion, and 5,000 Klement's Famous Racing Sausages Corn Dogs eaten.
The 4th Annual Food Competition, The Sporkies, a high-profile fair event with a panel of celebrity judges, including: LeRoy Butler - Super Bowl Champion, Steve Palec - Milwaukee radio veteran, host of Rock 'n Roll Roots on WKLH for 29 years, Donny Most - Ralph Malph from TV's Happy Days and Anson Williams, best known for Potsie, another beloved Happy Days Character (Happy Days was set in Milwaukee).
The Root Beer Float Cake - Sprecher Landing & Sprecher Root Beer Everything, won first place in the Sporkies competition, followed by Klement's Famous Racing Sausages Corn Dog - Saz's Bavarian Haus; Deep Fried Ol' Fashioned - Water Street Brewery. Other finalists included: Chili-Mac Bottom Pizza - Brew City, Deep Fried Ol' Fashioned - Water Street Brewery, Elvis Chicken and Waffle Sandwich - Slim's Lakefront Brew Pub & Eatery; Fiesta Cookie Dough On-A-Stick - Cookie Dough Fondue; Mountain Man Bloody Mary Burger - Exotic Meat Grill; and the Thanksgiving Day Burrito - Mexican Grill.
Spin City Up
Spin City - the fair's independent midway - had about 50 rides this year, an allotment consistent with other years.
"We didn't have any new rides at this fair," said Shari Black, Director of Event Services, Wisconsin State Fair. "The Rock-It was a popular ride and that came after not being here for a few years. We kept a lot of our mainstays, such as the Super Nova Coaster, Hurricane and Gondola Wheel."
"We are always trying to improve the midway," said Black. "We added new plants and landscaping, we want it to be a nice and welcoming environment. We added new umbrellas.
The midway featured 30 games, which Black said have actually become more popular. "People always enjoy the games, they remind you of their childhood. We have come very great game operators."
Nostalgia may determine game popularity -"the Bottle Up was the probably the biggest game, everybody seems to play the Bottle Up," said Black - but current trends dominated the plush. "Paw Patrol were hot items, but there was a lot of Pokemon prizes. Everyone wanted a Pikachu, they were all over the midway."
The Wisconsin State Fair is also one of the largest independent midways in the U.S., a format the fair plans to continue. "We take pride in that we produce a great product," said Black. "It's much more labor intensive on the fair's end. We're there on the midway all the time, we do the entire ticketing system and take care of all the operational aspects. But we get to cherry pick what rides and games we want on the midway, and we get to pick what operators we want to work with. For an independent midway, you have make sure all the T's are crossed, but we work with a lot of great ride operators who are very professional."