Fairgoers will have more days to visit the Washington State Fair in Puyallup starting in 2016.
The fair announced Thursday that it will open Labor Day weekend starting next year, after a multi-year study of other large fairs indicated that extending the schedule would benefit participants, employees and visitors.
The ultimate goal is to boost revenue and attendance, said Fair CEO Kent Hojem, who said it “makes sense for a lot of reasons.”
The annual September event will increase from three weekends to four and close every Tuesday, increasing the total number of fair days from 17 to 21.
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Fair officials say the midweek closures will likely ease vehicle traffic in the area, give vendors and exhibitors a chance to restock or change displays, and provide a day of rest, among other benefits.
The so-called “dark days” are scheduled for Tuesdays since those are historically the fair’s slowest days.
Fair spokeswoman Karen LaFlamme said the three days off will likely be welcomed by people on and off the fairgrounds.
“It gives our neighbors a chance to breathe a little bit,” LaFlamme said.
Hojem said it also will make livestock changeovers for 4-H participants “infinitely easier.”
Washington State 4-H director Pat BoyEs said having Tuesdays off will likely strengthen the programming and provide more flexibility behind the scenes.
“I’m certainly glad we have 18 months to plan for this, but ultimately I think it is going to work well for us,” she said.
The date changes are the first since 1978, when the fair made the move from 9 to 17 days. It started as a three-day event in 1900.
Fair officials told The News Tribune that research on other major fairs with longer schedules — including the State Fair of Texas, the San Diego County Fair and the Los Angeles County Fair — showed that it was often associated with increased satisfaction for fair guests, a boost in gate attendance and greater benefits for vendors and partners.
Hojem said he expects the longer schedule to disperse crowds and allow people “to come to the fair more comfortably.” The fair traditionally draws more than one million people a year.
He also said adding days on the front end of the fair could improve the odds of favorable weather. Fair attendance is heavily impacted by the region’s unpredictable weather as summer drifts toward fall.
Entertainment will expand along with the fair dates, but logistics are still up in the air, Hojem said.
“We’ll still be using the Grandstand (on the added days) in some way, shape or form.”
The fair works closely with many local partners — from schools to public safety agencies — who will be affected by the new schedule.
Tim Yeomans, Puyallup School District superintendent, said the net impact on schools will likely be minor.
Shelly Schlumpf, president and CEO of the Puyallup/Sumner Chamber of Commerce, said busy weekends at the fair generate lots of activity for local businesses, and an additional weekend will only add to it.
“There are so many ways that the fair acts as an economic engine for our city and our region,” she said. “If there are more days, more visitors and more transactions for businesses, we see that as being a good thing.”
Puyallup Police and Central Pierce Fire & Rescue will face some staffing challenges to provide security and emergency response services for the extended fair.
Police Chief Bryan Jeter said he will re-evaluate the staffing plan. Many officers hired from around Pierce County to patrol inside the fairgrounds take vacation to work the fair, he said, and adding Labor Day weekend to their duties could be difficult.
“We’re going to make it safe for our citizens,” Jeter said. “That’s our job, and that’s what we’ll do.”
Keith Wright, Central Pierce fire chief, said the new schedule will require the fire district to renegotiate its contract with the fair.
Wright acknowledged that adding a weekend could increase traffic and slightly affect response times around the city. But he doesn’t anticipate significant problems, he said.
The fair’s date changes could also affect other fairs in the region, including the Oregon State Fair in Salem and the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe, both of which run through Labor Day.
Tom Teigen, Snohomish County parks and recreation director, said he doesn’t expect the overlapping schedule to significantly dampen attendance at the Evergreen State Fair. Many people who come are from north of Seattle, he said.
“We’re comfortable in what we do and how we do it,” Teigen said. “We certainly draw good crowds.”
Plus, he added, there’s plenty of Labor Day entertainment competition already, including the Seattle music festival Bumbershoot.
Hojem said the overlap with the Oregon State Fair could be challenging because both fairs contract with carnival operator Funtastic for rides and games.
Still, the new schedule isn’t as drastic as some options that were explored.
Officials once considered moving the fair back to August, but Hojem said that would have interfered with too many local fairs, such as the Pierce County Fair, and ended the Puyallup event’s longstanding tradition as a harvest celebration.
Puyallup Mayor John Knutsen said the extended schedule will bring financial benefits to his city.
“I’m not concerned about it,” he said of the change. “Little more traffic congestion, but that’s pretty much there anyway.”
Hojem said only time will tell if the new fair schedule will be successful. But officials are confident it will offer many benefits.
“No matter how much you study it,” he said, “you never know until you do it.”