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Commentary: Indiana State Fair is on a roll

August 18, 2008

Riding a stretch of near-perfect weather, this year's Indiana State Fair seems destined to break attendance records.

I was there for a few hours one day, and I can see why it still is a big draw: The fair is alive with what's great about Indiana tradition. And, relatively speaking, it's a cheap form of entertainment.

Eight bucks for admission seems more than reasonable in these days when a movie costs you nearly $10, especially when you realize your $8 buys you an entire day at the fair if you're so inclined.

My favorite attractions have always been the animals, the fruits and vegetables in the Agriculture/Horticulture Building, and the paintings and photographs in the Home and Family Arts Building.

This year, Roach Hill Downs in the Pioneer Our Land Pavilion caught my eye, but not for long. I've never seen cockroaches that big, and, man, were they disgusting.

I've always loved the smells at the fair, too. There are about a million different things to eat there, and their individual and collective aromas trigger all kinds of visceral memories.

Plus, there's nothing quite as pungent as the fragrance of the swine barn. It kind of takes your breath away.

New to the fair menu this year was deep-fried bananas foster cheesecake on a stick. That's right up there with deep-fried Twinkies. Where else but the Indiana State Fair?

And sometimes it provides an opportunity to learn about the hobbies and talents of your co-workers and congratulate them for a job well done. Not long ago, Mickey and Janie Maurer were regularly winning state fair ribbons for woodworking, photography and baking.

This year, IBJ Office Manager Jane Wilcoxon pulled down a blue ribbon for her blueberry pie-the first time she'd ever entered anything in a contest like that. Art Associate Julie Kirkendoll won three ribbons for her bread and pies this year. Way to go, Jane and Julie.

There's literally something for everybody at the fair. And, as IBJ Arts and Entertainment Editor Lou Harry pointed out last week, it's good to see kids interested in something other than their televisions and computer games these days.

I've got to hand it to the Indiana State Fair Commission and its staff for working hard to make improvements-capital and otherwise-that keep the fair experience as fresh as possible, given the limitations of its basic mission.

The commission has spent nearly $9 million since 2005 to improve the grounds and buildings. When you are out there, it shows. The environment felt newer and cleaner this year.

The marketing folks have done a commendable job in creating more opportunities for sponsors and keeping them happy. As we have already reported, sponsor revenue hit $1.5 million this year, up 22 percent over last year. And, sponsors are renewing at a rate of 70 percent.

Little things make a big difference. In honor of this year's marketing theme, "The Year of the Trees," a covered bridge honoring Indiana's tradition of such bridges was added to the grounds. It's a gem, brought to you in part by the Indiana Hardwoods Association.

Next year's theme looks like it's going to be the "Year of Tomatoes," brought to us at least in part by Elwood-based tomato producer Red Gold Inc.

Continuing a trend to maximize the fair experience, the commission will add five days and another weekend to the event in 2009, increasing its duration from 12 to 17 days.

The extra days will provide not only opportunities for additional sponsorship, sales and attendance revenue, but also a good hedge against the chance for an outbreak of nasty weather that could hinder attendance.

It's a pretty safe bet fair officials won't luck out again with another string of days like the one we've had over the last two weeks. This is Indiana, remember?



Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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