Wisconsin State Fair canceled for the first time in 75 years

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A drone’s eye look at the Wisconsin State Fair grounds at State Fair Park in West Allis in June 2018. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The Wisconsin State Fair has been canceled for the first time in 75 years.

Organizers said Thursday they were concerned about operating a massive event safely and economically during the coronavirus pandemic.

The move comes after the State Fair Board of Directors voted unanimously just two days earlier to authorize Chairman John Yingling the power to cancel State Fair and other events scheduled at State Fair Park.

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Yingling told the Journal Sentinel that in the past few days he was focused on a list of diminishing options for a pared-down fair.

He said he was “struggling with what way we could have done something. And it was just not possible.”

The cancellation leaves a hole in the heart of the summer for Milwaukee and Wisconsin.

State Fair isn’t just about enjoying rides on a carnival midway or gorging on cream puffs and fried food.

It’s a salute to Wisconsin agriculture, with exhibits and competitions drawing people from across the state.

And it’s also a massive event, that lures 1 million people annually.

State Fair has been canceled only five years — three of them during the Civil War — with the last cancellation in 1945 as troops were fighting in the Pacific. The event started in 1851 in Janesville when it drew 10,000 people to see the latest agriculture machinery and products. It has been held in West Allis since 1892.

This year’s 11-day Wisconsin State Fair was scheduled for Aug. 6-16.

Putting together a safe fair during the coronavirus pandemic was not feasible, especially since it would be impractical to institute social distancing.

“In terms of other options, we looked at how one could have a modified fair,” Yingling said. “A smaller fair, a smaller footprint. We looked at what would happen if we tried to use best practices and not have buildings like the Cream Puff building, the Products Pavilion, the Expo, the Grand Championship Hall.

“We were told it would be better outside than inside. We looked at various proposals on whether or not we thought we could do anything from temperature checking to masks. And we looked on whether or not a postponement could be possible.”

“Unfortunately, all of those things aren’t possible,” Yingling said. “And they don’t give the fairgoer the experience they are used to. So ultimately it was the decision that this fair is just not going to work for us.”

Yingling said by not having a fair, State Fair Park will lose around $4.5 million.

Having a subpar, fair, he said could have added up to $2 million more in losses, he said.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers were budgeting for a $2 million profit.

“The Wisconsin State Fair is so much more than just a fair – it is a celebration of everything we are so proud of in Wisconsin,” said Kathleen O’Leary, CEO of Wisconsin State Fair Park. “We understand the magnitude of disappointment you may be feeling. We feel it too. However, safety is our top priority, and that cannot be compromised under any circumstance. We have tremendously loyal fairgoers, vendors, partners and exhibitors. For that we are forever grateful, and our greatest responsibility is to ensure that the fair remains strong and resilient for future generations.”

Admission tickets already purchased will be valid for the 2021 fair. However, refunds are also available through June 30.

The State Fair announced six Main Stage shows before the pandemic hit, which have all been canceled: Skillet, Chris Young, Bethel Music, Brothers Osborne, Boyz II Men, and the Beach Boys.

Main Stage concert tickets are eligible for a full refund. Concert tickets purchased with a credit card will automatically be refunded to the card used for purchase.

Peggy Williams-Smith, the president and CEO of Visit Milwaukee, praised fair organizers for their handling of the situation.

“I appreciate the thoughtfulness that has gone into the planning of State Fair this year and I know this was a difficult decision for the Board to make. Public safety must continue to be our top priority as a community, and I support the decision to cancel this year’s event in light of our current situation,” she said. “I will miss the Fair, but I look forward to next year’s event, which will no doubt be a fun and lively experience with delicious food, local vendors, great music, and of course, exciting family activities.”

But Williams-Smith acknowledged the financial toll of the cancellation.

“The economic impact of State Fair is over $200 million, so this is another hit to Milwaukee’s economy. State Fair is a casualty of the pandemic, like so many other festivals and events,” she said. “However, summer is still coming to Milwaukee, and we can still get out and explore our city, support local businesses, and look forward to sunnier days ahead.”

Journal Sentinel reporter Piet Levy contributed to this article.

Contact Mary Spicuzza at (414) 224-2324 or mary.spicuzza@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MSpicuzzaMJS.

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