State fairs are seldom associated with fast-paced change. On the contrary, part of the appeal of “Doin’ the Puyallup” rests in its immutable “American Gothic” elements — giant pumpkin contests, multicolored displays of grange hall produce, and an unhurried opening-day cattle drive down Meridian Street.
When fair bosses do mess with tradition — say, by changing the name from the Puyallup Fair to the Washington State Fair, as they did in 2013 — they risk eliciting extreme screams from old-timers (and the local newspaper).
Which brings us to the biggest shakeup at the fair since 1978, the year it expanded from a nine-day event to a 17-day hootenanny.
Starting this year, the fair will launch Labor Day weekend, instead of its longtime opening on the Friday after the holiday. It will run 21 days. For the first time, it also will go dark every Tuesday.
Rather than drawing catcalls, these changes should win community support fairly easily. What family wouldn’t like to share a bag of end-of-summer scones before the first day of school?
The extended schedule makes financial sense for a bottom-line organization trying to maximize big-crowd days (four weekends instead of three). It conforms with what other large West Coast fairs have done. Most important, the fair rolled out its plans 19 months ago, giving everyone from vendors to fairgoers, cops to concert promoters, plenty of time to get ready.
“This is the next step in our evolution,” CEO Kent Hojem told the TNT last year. And in true Darwinian fashion, the evolution has been slow and methodical.
Even so, fair managers must watch for signs of trouble. Traffic could turn into a 1 ½-fortnight headache, particularly with police shutting down Ninth Avenue. Fair patrons outside Puyallup could do themselves a favor by catching Pierce Transit shuttles, which are running again after budget cuts garaged them during the recession. Visitors from points farther north can grab a ride on the Sounder train any day, or take the new Starline Express bus from Kent, Auburn or Federal Way on Saturdays.
Ultimately, however, there’s one concern that should weigh on fair officials more than how long the event runs, or how convenient it is to get there: Can working-class people afford to take their families to the fair for a day? A TNT letter writer from Puyallup lamented last year that fair leaders “were pricing themselves out of existence.”
Gate admission is holding steady this year at $12.50 for adults, $9 for students and seniors — but that compares unfavorably to the Oregon State Fair, which charges $8 for adults, $6 for students and only $1 for seniors.
Patrons can save a few bucks buying advance tickets until Sept. 1, and kids under 18 will be admitted free during Labor Day weekend. But every parent knows the real money doesn’t get spent until after you walk through the turnstiles.
Costs aside, the best part of a fair is seeing the glow of the midway in the eyes of a child. E.L. Doctorow captured the wonderment in his novel “World’s Fair,” set in New York on the eve of World War II.
“I forgot everything that wasn’t the Fair as if the Fair was all there was,” the 9-year-old narrator says, “as if going on rides and seeing the sights, with crowds of people around you and music in your head, were natural life.”
May it ever be so in Puyallup.