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Our View: Imagine a first-class fairgrounds this week

July 24, 2018

This week, when you visit the 158th edition of the Olmsted County Fair — and you know you will — look around.

The fair, which opens today about a week earlier this usual, is always a good place to catch up with friends, relive neon-tinted memories going way back, and spin cotton candy around in your stomach on the carnival rides.

This year, it’s also a time to imagine how the fair would look if Graham Park is completely remade, as the county hopes. The Olmsted County Board last month approved a master plan for the 60-acre park — what most of us simply know as the fairgrounds — and it’s remarkable, ambitious and costly.

At a grand total of $54 million, it won’t happen overnight, if ever. The county board itself has been curiously quiet about the plan, considering it’s fair time, and we’ll see how hard board members and administrators fight for it.

The plan for the fairgrounds area of Graham Park may be of greatest interest, and even assuming compromises and revisions, the project would remake the Olmsted County Fair experience for the better. Much, much better. While this isn’t the right time to find fault with the fair, there’s no doubt that improved buildings, a more logical design, more discreet use of blacktop, and 21st century amenities would make the fair one of the best in Minnesota.

According to the 38-page plan produced by the Minneapolis-based landscape and architectural consultant Hoisington Koegler Group Inc., “The park’s new features all work in different ways to support the Olmsted County Fair during its weeklong run. The southern portion of the park is devoted to agriculture, with the new Arena/Expo building housing the Miracle of Birth Center and animal shows.”

The Midway would remain in the center of the park and include “space for smaller rides on the great lawn and heavier rides on the festival plaza. During the fair, Fairgrounds Avenue is closed to vehicular traffic and is transformed into a vendor promenade.”

The plan calls for “gathering spaces” along the east side of the park for eating, finding shade and hanging out. A permanent home for the Rochester farmers market is proposed, and the market would remain open during the fair. The plan is so forward-looking, it anticipates the market being converted into a beer garden after hours.

One of the most prominent — and controversial — changes would be at the grandstand. The plan gingerly proposes to replace the grandstand, which some consider a historic landmark, with a grassy amphitheater-type area.

What does the Olmsted County Agricultural Association think about the plan? The mission of the association, better known as the fair board, is to “work to honor Dr. Christopher Graham’s legacy and to fulfill the expectations of Dr. and Mrs. Graham as stated when they gifted the fairgrounds property to Olmsted County.”

We checked with the fair board over the weekend, asked several questions by email, and Board President Lenny Laures answered one: “Olmsted County will have an informational booth at the fair.”

Sheila Kiscaden, the county board chair, confirmed that the county will have a “passive display at the fair this week that shows the master plan.” She told Executive Editor Jay Furst by email Friday that the county “conferred with the Fair Board regularly as the master plan was developed.” Scott Schneider, the fair board’s vice president, is on the Graham Park Development Committee, which has been involved in the master planning for years.

“The Fair Board sent a letter of support for us to use with the Legislature as we sought state bonding funds for the Expo Hall” last session, Kiscaden said, “so all the indications we have are that the Fair Board has been engaged, has helped shape the plans, and is supportive.”

Expo Hall would be a roughly 84,000-square-foot, $21 million exhibition hall and arena that would be a centerpiece of the park, and the single most expensive feature.

This week would be a good time for county board members and staff and the fair board to get out and talk to fair-goers. The county’s “passive display” is fine, but some active listening would be better. They should hear some feedback and get people fired up.

If the county can’t get fair-goers excited about the transformation of Graham Park, it may be a tough sell for legislators and county taxpayers.

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