“People come out to see the animals, the rides, and the food, of course. The food is a big deal. People love to come out to the fair and splurge on their diet, just this time of year – get something crazy fried on a stick,” says Kristi Walsh, assistant executive director for the Arizona State Fair. 2015 marks a significant milestone in Arizona State Fair history: its 70th consecutive year operating.
In 1949, Litchfield Park local Jacque Mercer, Miss Arizona turned Miss America, attended the ribbon-cutting of the state fair. Before Arizona achieved statehood in 1912, the fairgrounds had hosted pony races and agricultural exhibits, full of boastful farmers and livestock enthusiasts eager to swap tricks of the trade. “It was basically a community gathering place where people in the agriculture and livestock industries could really share innovations with each other and brainstorm ideas for improving their products,” Walsh says. These agrarian showcases still occur, alongside the heart-pounding rides and deep-fried Snickers.
From the late 1990s on, the state fair has seen around a million visitors annually. In 2006 there was a record high of 1,303,690 visitors, largely drawn by a great concert lineup at Veterans Memorial Coliseum that included the Steve Miller Band, Gretchen Wilson and Foo Fighters. This year, Veterans Memorial Coliseum – a venue where everybody from Elvis to Rihanna has performed – celebrates its 50-year anniversary.
But the fair’s principal focus is community involvement, as it has been since the agricultural and livestock days. “We really try to be the Arizona State Fair. We actually have an outreach truck that we send to the outer counties to collect entries,” Walsh says. Although there is a desire to spearhead modern attractions, the traditions of the state fair remain well-preserved.
“I can’t tell you how many people have said, ‘Oh, my first date was at a show at the Coliseum’ or ‘I met my wife at the fair,’” Walsh says. “It’s really touched a nostalgic place in people’s hearts.”
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