The iconic “cube” outside the Gold Gate is gone. So are the familiar cow heads, which looked out for decades from atop the ticket booths that boxed in the fairgrounds in Puyallup.
Now, an open-air entrance, detached booths and a towering new logo welcome visitors to the reborn Washington State Fair, which runs through next weekend.
Fair officials say the makeover at the main gate along South Meridian in Puyallup epitomizes the rebranding of the fair known for decades simply by the name of its host city.
“To change your name, that requires you to think a little bit deeper about what your responsibilities have evolved into,” fair CEO Kent Hojem said.
Tearing down the boxy walls and allowing passers-by to see inside the fairgrounds was a step toward making the fair more visible and accessible, part of a larger goal to draw more statewide visitors.
The new Gold Gate was part of nearly $3.4 million in capital improvements — an overhaul that corresponded with the three-year,
$1 million rebranding effort.
The fair’s sweeping upgrades have included adding wheelchair-accessible seating at the grandstand and relocating the popular Piglet Palace at SillyVille.
The physical improvements are the first wave of large-scale projects since 2004 and 2005, and they were all done with guests in mind, said fair operations manager Glen Baskett.
The fair is a nonprofit organization, and spokeswoman Karen LaFlamme said fair leaders have been in “saving mode” for several years to financially prepare for the overhaul. Last year, for example, $1.15 million was set aside for maintenance and future projects such as the rebrand.
Money comes in from several sources, including booth rental rates, admission fees and renting out facilities the rest of the year.
“Unlike a lot of entertainment venues these days, the fair doesn’t receive any governmental funding,” Hojem said. “Since we don’t have that safety net, we have to make sure we operate as a responsible business.”
He said officials thought carefully about which improvements to prioritize.
The rebrand was a great opportunity for staff to take a closer look at what was neglected or outdated, Hojem said.
“We didn’t even realize where the dusty corners were,” he said. “It was a good reminder to us to always pay attention to the dust in the corners.”
Puyallup residents may have noticed changes at the fairgrounds long before the name change and rebrand. Work on the gates has been underway for years.
Baskett said a $400,000 renovation of the Blue Gate, located near the state Route 512 interchange on Meridian, was completed about five years ago.
Around that time, discussion about opening up the Gold Gate started.
Both gates are main fair entrances, located close to a major thoroughfare and the freeway.
“The Gold Gate we’ve always considered a front door to the fair,” Hojem said. “Everybody involved fell in love with opening up that corner.”
Keith Creley, 75, has worked the fair gates during his 26 years as a seasonal employee. He said he’s happy with the Gold Gate changes.
“It looks more comfortable and friendly,” he said.
Others are skeptical.
Scott and Dan Kelly, brothers working at a new cotton candy stand across the street, said the changes don’t improve visibility much because crowds block the street-level view.
“It looks kind of plain,” Dan Kelly said. “It doesn’t have as much charm.”
For many, the charm was attributed to those cow heads, which were taken down in May.
Hojem said fairgoers don’t need to worry. “They’ll be back,” he said.
The gate’s new look could be modified again, but Hojem said feedback has been so positive that it could be left alone. A timeline for finalizing the permanent design will be revisited after the fair ends on Sept. 22, he said.
John Palmer, a former Puyallup Planning Commission chair and current City Council member, said he has mixed feelings about the fair’s identity change.
He understands the motive for changing the fair’s name but is disappointed they dropped “Puyallup.”
Similarly, he has a mixed opinion on the overhaul at the Gold Gate.
“I went into it thinking it was in transition,” he said. “I think that some type of iconic feature there would be desirable.”
Two other gates were also revamped this year. Electrical upgrades were made to the Orange Gate near Fairview Drive, and the Green Gate was given a farmers-market-style makeover.
SPRUCING UP SIGNS
Officials say the most challenging part of the overhaul was replacing Puyallup Fair signs. It has required them to put their scavenger hunt skills to the test; LaFlamme said it’s like finding thousands of Waldos.
“We had a hundred pair of eyes looking for signs,” Hojem said. “I’m sure there are some that we missed.”
The fair changed more than 1,100 signs on and off the fairgrounds. Fair staff are still working to locate signs that weren’t updated.
Starting in November last year, fair workers divided a map of the 66-acre property into grids and started sweeping the grounds for traces of “Puyallup Fair” on everything from “No Smoking” signs to equipment labels.
The state Department of Transportation finished updating highway signs, paid for by the fair, in early August.
Hojem predicts the effort will continue into the 2014 fall fair.
New signs were made by in-house and outside designers, and both fair staff and contractors installed them.
Thrill-seekers will appreciate the two most costly upgrades, which added one roller coaster and renovated another on the midway.
Rainier Rush, the fair’s first looping-inversion coaster, was installed near the Orange Gate. Its nearby historic sibling, the Classic Coaster, went through a five-year renovation that replaced its wooden pieces section by section.
More work could lie ahead for the Classic Coaster if officials decide to paint it white like the older version; a decision won’t be made for at least another year.
Also making its debut this year is Evergreen Hall, which showcases agriculture and horticulture displays, floral displays and grange exhibits. They are brought together in a building that used to hold commercial exhibits. Agriculture and granges were formerly in the Showplex building, while floral was located near the Red Gate.
Hojem called Evergreen Hall an important piece of the rebranding effort, uniting a variety of state-fair staples.
“It’s an opportunity to shine the spotlight brightly on those different, but very much related areas,” he said.
Audrey Summerhill, who has worked at the floral exhibits for three years, said the merger allows the related departments to better address fairgoers’ questions about plants and gardening. It also generates more foot traffic.
“I think they do belong together,” Summerhill said.
Meanwhile, workers completed a pair of smaller projects in the SillyVille area of the fair: a new attraction for kids and a permanent home for a returning one.
Tractor Tracks, which allows kids to drive pedal tractors on a test track, is in the first phase of a three-phase project that could take more than two years to complete. It debuted this year.
Also, the popular Piglet Palace has been moved to a more suitable location after outgrowing its spot next to the old dairy barn. The new barn showcases sows and their piglets; one litter is born before the fair starts and another arrives midway through.
Officials say the fair is always thinking about how to remain relevant.
Hojem said there’s no timeline for finishing improvements to the fair, which is always evolving.
“If you’re really paying attention to your brand, you’re never done,” he said.
Some specific next steps include adding permanent signage to Rainier Rush and adding to this year’s projects that are nearing completion.
Although Hojem didn’t specify any major upcoming plans, he said taking a long-range view of the fair is always on officials’ minds. That includes maintaining its agricultural roots as the farming industry shrinks, especially in the Puyallup Valley.
With only one local daffodil farmer left and increased development, Hojem said the fair’s agricultural heritage is more important than ever.
“Some organization has to remind everybody where their food comes from,” he said.
It has been several years since the fair has explored expansion.
In 2010, fair officials floated a major land-use proposal asking the city to re-designate 219 acres of property surrounding the fairgrounds. They halted the effort after hearing strong outcry from residents concerned about their property values and neighborhood cohesion.
Although expansion is still possible, Hojem said no specific plans are in place.
“We always are thinking about what the future will hold,” he said. “We’d be doing our guests a disservice if we didn’t think about expanding our footprint.”
A CLOSER LOOK AT PROJECTS
The Washington State Fair opened this year on Sept. 6. Many projects that debuted as part of a three-year rebranding effort are in different stages of completion.
Both fair staff and local contractors worked on new construction and renovation of existing structures, for a total cost of nearly $3.4 million. Here’s a detailed look at those projects:
GATES AND ACCESS
WHAT: Gold Gate demolition, replacement
WHERE: Near Ninth Avenue Southwest and South Meridian Street
WORK: Old boxy walls were replaced with 9-foot wrought-iron fences and detached ticket booths that increase visibility into the fairgrounds.
WHAT: Orange Gate renovation
WHERE: Near Fairview Drive
WORK: Old parking area that has a stormwater retention pond on-site; upgrades included adjusting the fence and expanding electrical capacity to support current and future exhibits.
WHAT: Green Gate beautification
WHERE: Southwest side of fairgrounds
WORK: Added facades and other features to give the area a farmers-market look, to complement market-type activities held in that area.
WHAT: Disabled-accessible Grandstand seating
WHERE: Grandstand, near the Gold Gate and administrative offices
WORK: Seating was added to the ADA-compliant section located on the floor level. The new seats above the old section improve visibility for guests.
WHAT: Roller coasters Rainier Rush, Classic Coaster
COST: $1 million, $1.25 million, respectively
WHERE: Both located near Orange Gate
WORK: Rainier Rush was purchased and installed this summer, and the wooden Classic Coaster’s five-year renovation was finished shortly after.
WHAT: Evergreen Hall
WHERE: Between the Showplex and the midway
WORK: Agriculture and horticulture, floral and grange exhibits are merged in what used to be a 21,400-square-foot barn. The project included adding banners, repainting, replacing the floor and installing track lighting in place of fluorescent lights.
WHAT: Tractor Tracks
COST: Phase one $91,000; two phases remain
WHERE: At SillyVille
WORK: Electrical improvements, paved tractor pathways and landscaping.
WHAT: Piglet Palace
WHERE: At SillyVille
WORK: Constructed new barn, installed two 50-inch screens and video equipment for watching the pigs.
SIGNS AND SURFACES
WHAT: Sign changes
COST: More than $250,000; cost likely to increase as more signs are discovered
WHERE: Fairgrounds, city of Puyallup and highways
WORK: Removed signs with old logo and designed and installed ones with the new name and logo. In-house and outside designers and contractors made and installed them around the fair, in the city and on surrounding highways.
WHAT: Surface improvements
COST: $57,000 (part of $250,000 Gold Gate project costs)
WHERE: Greater Gold Gate area
WORK: Painted the exterior of the Pavilion, the box office area, the eastern third of the Expo Hall and the antique merry-go-round building.
WHAT: Three large photographic panels
COST: More than $36,000
WHERE: Between the Blue and Gold gates along the Pavilion wall facing Meridian
WORK: Three 22-by-48 foot framed graphic murals depicting various scenes from the fair’s 113-year history.
WASHINGTON STATE FAIR SCHEDULE
EVENTS SUNDAY AT THE FAIR
Wool Riders, Mutton Busting, 10:30 a.m., noon, 2, 4 and 6:30 p.m., near Green Gate.
Let’s Pretend Circus Adventure, noon, 2, 4, 6 and 7 p.m., SillyVille.
Giant Pumpkin Carving, 11 a.m., Planting Patch.
Roberto Tapia and Fiestas Patrias Music Festival, noon-5 p.m. Grandstand.
Groovin’ Higher Jazz Orchestra, 1, 4 and 5:35 p.m., Mountain Mist Stage.
Draft Horse and Driving Demonstrations, 2 and 3:30 p.m., Paulhamus Arena.
Lazer Hitz Show, 9 and 9:30 p.m., west of Planting Patch.
HOW TO DO THE PUYALLUP
Hours: 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays; 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays.
Admission: $12.50 adults, $9 seniors (62 and over) and students (ages 6-18); free 5 and younger. Tickets can be purchased online at thefair.com.
Transportation: There will be no fair-only express bus routes offered. Specialized transportation is available for registered Shuttle customers; call one to five days in advance to schedule. For regular Pierce Transit routes to Puyallup, call 253-581-8000 or go to piercetransit.org.
Parking: $12 Saturday-Sunday, $10 Monday-Friday.