Editor’s note: this feature is the first part in an upcoming seven part series exploring and re-imagining the various areas of the Fairgrounds. Reviews of 2018 new Fair foods will return on Friday, August 31st and continue through the end of the Fair on Labor Day.
Welcome to the first installment of Reinventing the Fairgrounds, a seven part series that looks to explore each of the “neighborhoods” of the Minnesota State Fair. Each entry in this series will discuss a cohesive section of the Fairgrounds at length, analyzing what currently exists in that area, what it presently does right, and make suggestions for how to improve it during future Fairs. These features will cover the entirety of the Fairgrounds over the coming months, providing points of conversation about the Fair well after the gates have closed for the year. We invite you, the reader, to share your thoughts on what you most like and dislike about each area and what you would do to improve it in the comments and on our social media pages.
We begin this series by diving in to the iconic Machinery Hill area of the Fair, the section most liable for change in the coming years. Already in 2018, the Minnesota State Fair utilized the majority of its capital improvement budget in revamping the northern-most blocks of this area, developing a new area for the beleaguered Pet Pavilion and turning the old building that housed our four-legged friends into a vibrant new bar, restaurant and music stage called The Hangar. Clearly, the intent with this project was to drive more business, especially nightlife, to an often forgotten corner of the Fair. These changes build upon other recent developments on Machinery Hill, like remodeled bathrooms and the placement of new food vendors, intent on making better use of the expanse of land available in this less dense area.
Machinery Hill is the quasi-official name for northern most section of the Fairgrounds that traditionally featured large farming equipment for display and sale to agriculturalists who populated early Fairs when the primary focus was the exhibition of Minnesota farm products. For the purposes of this article, we are considering the boundaries of Machinery Hill as being bordered by Hoyt Avenue to the north (site of entrance gate 2, the Fairgrounds’ north-most entrance point); Snelling Avenue to the east; Wright Avenue to the south; and Dan Elmer Way to the west. These boundaries provide us with a tall, narrow strip of land that encompasses roughly 10 blocks that today still largely mirrors its agricultural roots. Buildings and major attractions included in the Machinery Hill neighborhood include the Eco Experience Progress Center, the Fine Arts Building, Family Fair at Baldwin Park, and the North Woods area.
To say that Machinery Hill is often forgotten about does not mean it is always deserted. On the contrary, this portion of the Fairgrounds is well-traveled, especially by those entering and leaving through the north gate of the Fair by way of the large parking lots situated above the area. With the recent reorganization of much of the parking near the West End Market area of the Fairgrounds into a transit hub, Machinery Hill is now adjacent to the majority of the Fair’s on-site parking, and therefore anyone not utilizing the Fair’s mass transit options are likely to visit Machinery Hill out of necessity, even if it is simply to pass through to other parts of the Fair.
Topography is sadly not conducive to visiting Machinery Hill without a purpose for doing so. The area gets its name not just from the tractors and combines that adorn it, but also from the literal incline at this end of the Fair. Already weary-legged Fairgoers may decide to skip the trek all the way to its summit only to be met with a dead-end and a trip several blocks back to the south. Instead, many do not venture further from the core of the Fairgrounds than the Kidway situated just below Machinery Hill, especially those with small children who are unlikely to be fascinated by the several blocks of farm equipment, car dealerships and radio stations that currently call the area home.
Perhaps in recognition of the undesirable task of climbing the hill, several years ago the Fair introduced the Sky Glider, a chair lift-style ride designed to take people high above the Fairgrounds between two terminuses, one at the Fair’s north gate and the other near the Grandstand. The addition of the new transportation mode masquerading as an attraction, simultaneously installed with the attention-grabbing Giant Sing Along karaoke area, was the first sign that the operators of the Fair had bigger plans for Machinery Hill.
In the eyes of most Fairgoers, much of what currently exists on Machinery Hill is expendable. The area does not include any of the iconic structures that make up what people envision when thinking of the Fair; its utilitarian profile and reputation as a dumping ground for vendors that need space to showcase their wares does not lend well to a feeling of permanence or importance. The area’s most photographed location made its debut in ’17 — that’s 2017, not 1917 — with the installation of the vibrant Great Big Wheel, a 15-story Ferris wheel that lights up the sky with color-changing light patterns visible from across the Fairgrounds. The majority of Machinery Hill’s blocks are comprised of temporary structures erected for the 12 days of the Fair and quickly dismantled; a drive through the Fairgrounds during the off-season reveals a barren stretch of land that closely resembles a failed commercial development that never got off the ground.
All hope is not lost for Machinery Hill though; instead, this area should be seen as ripe for change and improvement, more than any other neighborhood of the Fair. Where changes to other sections would be met with vociferous outcry against tinkering with decades of tradition (as happened with the tearing down of Heritage Square four years ago to build West End Market, for example), the general public would likely encourage a major revamp to entire blocks of Machinery Hill. While some have expressed concern that the traditional farm equipment is being squeezed out of the area, and therefore out of the Fairgrounds entirely, in truth the dealers of these vehicles are making fewer sales each year as the Internet has largely replaced in-person sales. The expense of transporting and displaying larger pieces of equipment and the declining sales have led to a general downsizing of what is on display from the monstrous tractors of the past to mere riding lawn mowers today. Realistically, the agricultural population that attend the Fair are more likely to enjoy other attractions than the latest model of what they have on the farm back home.
To improve Machinery Hill would be to draw more people to the beleaguered section of the Fair and make it a destination for people, every bit as unmissable as the most popular areas like the International Bazaar or the Midway. However, this does not mean the Fair should copy the formulas set by these other places; part of what the Fair does very well is fostering variation and providing “something for everyone.” If they are to rework a block or two of Machinery Hill to reflect changing attitudes, it should offer something not currently available elsewhere on site. To invent a whole new purpose out of thin air leaves an infinite number of possibilities, and we have come up with a few to offer, though by no means an exhaustive list.
One possibility would be to embrace the food-centric nature of the Fair and create a food truck park. The Twin Cities have had a seemingly endless boom of food trucks offering fresh new takes on quick-service food that would be a perfect match for the Fair, but thus far have been shut out from entering its realm. Food trucks could park at a designated location en masse, bringing with them brand new food items that add to the depth of what is on offer at the Fair, including entire genres of food previously missing from the Fairgrounds. What’s more, the Fair could encourage people to come back on multiple days if they rotate in new trucks through the duration of the Fair, a model that has been working for several years with the Midtown Global Market’s rotating cast of vendors inside their booth at the International Bazaar. With limited space currently for new food vendors at the Fair and a lengthy waiting list for any spots that do open up, a ledger that currently includes several established food trucks, this may be the best opportunity to make a drastic expansion to the Fair’s culinary offerings.
Another option would be to develop a new beer garden to draw nightlife to the north end of the Fairgrounds, spreading out the crowds from the current concentration of younger people that develops in the evenings near the Grandstand and Midway. The Fair has experienced an explosion of craft breweries creating unique, limited-run beers for vendors scattered throughout the grounds, making it difficult to find your favorite brewery without a list guiding you to where it is located. While the various establishments around the Fair certainly want to keep their marquee beverages on the menu to drive business, there is no shortage of breweries across the state who would be willing to create more exclusive beers to offer up at the Great Minnesota Drink-Together. This idea could encompass a relocation and expansion of the popular (and crowded) Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild’s Brewed in Minnesota exhibit, currently located in one spoke of the Agriculture-Horticulture Building, which has been serving rotating flights of locally-made beers with great success in a setting that is not at all conducive to drinking and enjoying adult beverages. It could also mean the relocation of the current Beer Garden, a hodge-podge of restaurateurs surrounding a collection of tables and a small karaoke area that currently occupies prime real estate near the center of the Fairgrounds.
A riskier, and more extravagant, idea would be to create a second ticketed music venue, similar to the Grandstand, to drive more revenue to the Fair and burgeon the recent marketing of the Fair as “Minnesota’s largest music festival.” There is a middle ground between the national headliners that fill the Grandstand each night of the Fair and the free stage entertainment that draw overflowing crowds to see lesser-known performers. Minneapolis is an extremely strong market for paid live music, with club-size venues like First Avenue, Palace Theater and The Armory among the best in the nation in ticket sales. A stage with a similar capacity to those venues, with good booking and promotion, could easily draw in new audiences to the Fairgrounds and build up the reputation of the Fair as being the best place for live entertainment during the end of summer.
Regardless of what direction the Minnesota State Fair decides to go in, it seems abundantly clear that big changes are likely ahead for Machinery Hill. While it would be a shame to see the roots of what gave this neighborhood its name vanish, fighting against this change is a losing battle with shifting consumer attitudes necessitating a new direction for the area. With this section of the Fair clearly in the crosshairs for upcoming changes, beginning with this year’s reworking of the north end, expect that future years of the Fair will leave Machinery Hill looking much different than it has in the past.