More than 444,000 people attended this year’s Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, which ended on Labor Day. Fair officials say that’s down slightly—about 7 percent—but the fair was a success by the standards that count.
For some, the carnival, huge crowds, and oddball foods like alligator on a stick are what the State Fair is all about. New Colorado State Fair general manager Scott Stoller says, though, state fairs are a reminder of agriculture.
"People get a chance to interface with agriculture," said Stoller, "see where their food comes from and get to meet a farmer. It’s the ag that makes it special and separates from just another festival or a carnival in a parking lot somewhere."
And for many people, agriculture is what draws them to the fair. 14-year-old Alice Zuber, a 4H livestock competitor from Fairplay, was showing goats.
"My utility goat and I got first place in the costume contest, and then my junior doe took second in both of her classes," said a pleased Zuber.
City folks make up a large percentage of the attendees though, like Sonia Cervantes of Denver.
"I love to bring my little kids so that way they can see the animals," said Cervantes. "They love the goats, they love to see the cows and they love the horses especially. We like to go around see all the animals and at the end we’ll go over to the rides. My dad used to bring me when I was little, and so it’s something for the family."
During the fair's 51st annual Fiesta Day, there were plenty of families on hand to celebrate Colorado's Hispanic heritage.
"I grew up two blocks away from here," said Raoul Sanchez of Pueblo, who said he's been coming to the fair for 50 years. "I love it and it’s a tradition and it’s something that’s important to Pueblo -- not just for the economic reasons but for the cultural reasons. The state fair reminds us of all the rich culture in Pueblo and it gives us a chance to show it off and enjoy it."
New fair manager Stoller has only been on the job since July, and he said Colorado has something special.
"I’ve seen a lot of fair grounds all over the country that are brand new beautiful state of the art facilities," Stoller said, "but you aren't going to get the culture, the soul. There’s just so much quirkiness and architecture here that make the Colorado State Fair unique and fun. Every little bit of this fairgrounds, you can see that there’s history."
But Stoller said while all the historic buildings are a blessing, they’re aging and that means they need expensive repairs and upgrades. For example, fixing roofs and making the old buildings more accessible. So the maintenance and upkeep of the fairgrounds makes up a big chunk of the fair’s budget. And because it’s a state agency, the budget gets scrutinized by state lawmakers.
"The problem with fairs is that the infrastructure you need to do the annual event is hard to maintain and support the rest of the year, it usually takes public dollars," said former state fair general manager and deputy agriculture commissioner Chris Wiseman, who’s currently running for Pueblo County Commissioner.
Wiseman said recently there’s been good support for the fair in the Colorado state legislature but expanding the fairground’s year-round revenue is an ongoing issue. He and Stoller both said that this year’s fair was a success.
"Attendance might be down slightly, but as I knew for all the years I was here that’s not the true measure of the fair, it’s money in and money out, the programs we provide for the youth -- 4H and FFA and junior livestock sale...how successful that was," explained Wiseman.
Preliminary numbers show that this year's livestock sale brought in some $495,000, which goes to the young people who raised the animals and is often used to help pay for college tuition.
For Stoller, that's a healthy figure.
Farmer and rancher Gary Leonard of Cheyenne, Oklahoma had an opinion too. He said he shows his livestock at the Oklahoma State Fair, but he’s been coming to the Colorado State Fair as a spectator for the last 15 years.
"I really like this one best, it accommodates the farm scene a lot better than the Oklahoma city fair does."