State Fair Must Adjust To Changing School Calendars

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August 5, 2013 — analysis


INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana State Fair began on Friday and runs for 17 days, which seemingly gives Hoosiers plenty of time to get to an event that offers something for almost everyone.

But with thousands of Hoosier students heading back to school last week and next, it’s unlikely that nearly as many kids will be part of the festivities – at least not on weekdays.

That’s a shame. The fair offers families from rural areas a chance to showcase their animals and products and a way to celebrate the farming heritage that remains so important to the state.

And it gives city kids a chance to see agriculture up close as well. That’s important in an era when it would be easy to think the food on your dinner table comes from a grocery store and not a farm.

But of course the state fair is much more than 4-H cattle competitions and the Pioneer Village.

There are displays about trade and manufacturing, forests and fishing, and this year a high-tech exhibit about animation featuring characters from Pixar, Walt Disney, DreamWorks and Sony.

There’s music – a free stage with popular acts, a contest for up-and-coming singers and the high school marching band competition. There’s food – the Dairy Bar and the Indiana Pork Producers and fresh ears of corns.

But the question is whether the evolving school calendar will allow kids to enjoy what can be amazing educational and entertainment experience.

Fair officials are aware of the problem. “It’s a never-ending challenge for us,” Andy Klotz, a state fair spokesman, told Maureen Hayden, a reporter for Community Newspapers.

But it appears that tradition and practicality have so far kept fair officials from making big changes that might truly help. The biggest one is probably that the state fair is really the culmination of a season that features county fairs across Indiana.

Those are important community events, especially in rural areas. And they serve as a sort of qualification program for 4-H competitors, who get to move from the county to the state fair if they do well enough. So it makes sense that the state event should be planned after those are completed.

A few years ago, the state fair expanded its calendar to include a third weekend, a move meant in part to deal with the earlier school start times and encourage more attendance. And fair officials are encouraging educators to use the fair to enhance their classroom experiences in science, technology, engineering and math.

But they may have to do more if they want to ensure that kids can continue to enjoy the experience – and the fair can maintain its attendance.

Already, the trend isn’t great.  Last year, about 854,000 people attended the fair. It’s a big number but still the worst in the past seven years. Granted, it was hot and steamy last summer and big concerts had been moved away from the fairgrounds following the previous year’s stage collapse.

But 2012 wasn’t a one-year aberration. Attendance has been dropping since 2009, when the fair moved from 12 to 17 days and set an attendance record.

Of course, fair attendance isn’t all about the school calendar – but the increasingly common early August start time doesn’t help. It’s a reality that state fair officials – and in turn county fair folks – might have to adjust to sooner than later.

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