Editor’s note: Access Press recently published a two-part commentary from Barb Metzger outlining accessibility concerns about the 2023 Minnesota State Fair. Access Press invited the fair to respond.
During 12 days at the end of summer, the 322-acre Minnesota State Fairgrounds becomes one of the state’s largest cities. As with most cities, navigating through it presents some challenges.
In the case of the fairgrounds, which has called its current location home since 1885, an aging infrastructure compounds the issues. Decades-old buildings and structures, beautiful shade trees with extensive root systems, miles of sidewalks, green space and more all create the charm many of us love about the fairgrounds. But, all of this requires money and time to maintain and improve. With the exception of PPP loans in 2020-21 to keep our full-time staff team intact so we would be ready to present a fair as soon as the pandemic eased, we have been completely financially self-supporting since 1949, the last year we received government appropriation. Following 18 months with virtually no operating revenue and a near-halt in work during the pandemic, we are playing catch-up on our maintenance and capital work. We spent $270,000 in 2021 and 2022 to replace and repair sidewalks, curbs, curb cuts and pavement. In 2023, we anticipate spending more than $500,000, bringing our budgeted total to nearly $800,000 in the past three years on sidewalks and pavement alone. This work is endless, and upgrades will not happen all at once or even over several years, but each year, our grounds are a budget priority, and we make more and more improvements because we know that the park-like fairgrounds is one of our biggest assets.
One of the 2023 projects was the redevelopment of the fairgrounds inside Gate 9, the Loop Gate where guests can be dropped off and picked up if they are using Metro Mobility, various shuttles, personal vehicles, and the Oscar Johnson Park & Ride reserved for those with accessible parking certificates or license plates. (Uber and Lyft are located south of Como Avenue.) Instead of entering through what previously seemed like a back alley to the fairgrounds, guests coming through Gate 9 are now welcomed by new sidewalks, open green space, more room for wheelchair and scooter rental and other amenities, benches and artwork. This year, we did not alter the area outside the gate. For the 2023 State Fair, Metro Mobility reported a total of 1740 rides, with 52 recorded “no shows” at Gate 9, or 3 percent of total rides; the no-show number is approximately the same as 2022. When we asked specifically about their experience at Gate 9 this year, Metro Mobility responded that they have no report of issues from their staff or contractors and did not notice an increase in congestion compared to past years. Despite this, we will continue to look at the logistics of the Gate 9 area and explore ways to improve, especially related to safety and guest experience.
When we called the commentary author, Barbara Metzger, to follow up on her fair-time visit to guest relations, we had a very insightful, helpful conversation. She pointed out the challenges for those in wheelchairs of restroom stall doors that open inward rather than outward. While we have spot-checked the doors in our newer restroom facilities, we have not checked all of the restrooms as of yet and are continuing to check into her feedback regarding the operation of stall doors. Similarly, we understand the need for an electric door opener for the guest relations office, and we will be looking into adding this to our list of improvement work. We also apologize that we did not have printed Accessibility Guides at the ready during this fair. As with much of our printed materials, we have moved to providing the information on our website instead; we erred in not removing reference to the printed guide from our website. As we go through our post-fair wrap-up, we are considering if we will continue offering the information online only.
This year, one of our biggest strides in providing accessible guest services was the addition of the Momentum Refresh universally designed restroom with hoist. Currently, only one of these truly unique vehicles is in circulation in the U.S., and prior to the Minnesota State Fair, had only been used in California. We are honored to be a leader in offering this guest service and are humbled and grateful to learn of the value and dignity it provided for so many fair guests, many of whom could not otherwise fully enjoy their time at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
Becoming more inclusive and accessible is not an end goal but a journey, and the Minnesota State Fair is wholeheartedly committed to providing needed resources for the long haul. We continue to make progress every year, and 2024 will be no exception. What will undoubtedly remain constant are the many kind, caring, courteous and thoughtful fair guests who Barbara encountered.
We welcome the feedback we received from Barbara’s visit and phone call with State Fair staff and her commentary in Access Press. While we are not perfect, as she says, it is through having conversations and sharing experiences that we improve and create change. Thank you for helping us and we look forward to the future.
-Minnesota State Fair