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A new century for the Kansas State Fair

Plenty of places around the fairgrounds tell the story of its past.

Stand next to the Columbian Club Fountain, the oldest object on the fairgrounds, with its large ear of corn and sunflower petals basin, sent to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Rest in the Capper Building or take a boat ride in Ye Old Mill, it’s apparent the Kansas State Fairgrounds had retained many of its historic landmarks.

But Denny Stoecklein’s office, in the Administration Building, isn’t one of those places. Instead, stepping into his remodeled office lined with south windows facing Gottschalk Park, there is a modern feel that the Kansas State Fair is moving forward.

For a little more than a decade, Denny has been the general manager of the fair. Back in 2002 he was the assistant fair manager, but was named as the fair’s interim manager in the fall of 2002, replacing Bill Ogg.

“When I assumed the position, they were in the early stages of the master plan,” Stoecklein said.

So for the past decade Stoecklein has been swept up in the excitement of major renovations to seven buildings, including Cottonwood Court. Originally built in 1927 at the Motor Show Building, back when automobiles were first becoming a popular form of transportation, local auto dealers thought the fairgrounds was a good place to display their wares. Prior to becoming the remodeled Cottonwood Court, it served as the dingy commercial arts building.

“It wasn’t used throughout the year and restrooms were limited,” said Stoecklein. Now the air-conditioned building has a spacious food court with a selection of food vendors all in one place. At one time, several of the vendors, including Our Lady of Guadalupe and South Hutchinson Methodist Church, operated out of little wooden structures along Grandstand Avenue. Today it is also rented out during the year for events including the Mennonite relief sale’s annual meal event.

The Domestic Arts Building was the same way, with no climate control or restrooms; it was limited to being used two weeks out of the year. Now it is rented throughout the year for everything from graduation receptions to wedding dances.

Stoecklein has also been on board as the Sunflower South, the Sunflower North, the sheep, swine and goat building and Prairie Pavilion have all been built. He watched the remodeling of the Meadowlark, Oz Gallery, Poultry and Pigeon and Rabbit exhibit buildings.

By 2004 the fair board chose Wichita-based Greteman Group to provide branding, public relations, print and broadcast advertising and media-buying services for the fair. Stoecklein said the goal was to let all Kansans know the fair had something to offer everyone.

For several years they have been working hard at improving the fair, while increasing attendance for those who attend and participate in the event.

“We also have been growing non-fair events,” said Stoecklein. “We had over 400 non-fair events this year and we show no signs of slowing down.”

Back in 1964 the board instituted a Long Range Planning Committee, according to Tom Percy in “A History of The Kansas State Fair, 1863-2006.” At least once a decade the board hired consulting firms to evaluate the fair and suggest areas of improvement, as a way of keeping patrons coming back year after year.

In 1999 the board hired Landmark Architects, and Bullock, Smith and Partners, to develop a master plan designed to bring the fair into the 21st century.

Instead of razing buildings, the study suggested renovating buildings to highlight the historical characteristics of the fair with the contemporary.

In the summer of 2001, Gov. Bill Graves signed a bill authorizing the expenditure of up to $29 million to fund the master plan.

“Four months later was 9/11,” Stoecklein said. “If we hadn’t gotten the approval when we did, the money wouldn’t have been there.”

The past decade has brought hot topics to the fair, including continuing to assure that the fair remains handicapped-accessible.

When the 2004 fair opened, the Prairie Pavilion was unveiled, a 92,000-square-foot beef barn. The Pride of Kansas Building had also been revamped. Also, the Stoecklein- Lair water park area near the administration building was opened, to squeals of delight from many children.

The past decade has brought a lot of exciting events to the fair. In 2004, after Kansas legalized hypnotism, the fair hired Ron Diamond. The hypnotist, illusionist, mentalist and entertainer continually packed the Farm Bureau Arena for every show.

A day after the fair closed in 2004, as crews were taking the stage in front of the grandstands, tragedy struck. Larry Ankerholz, a state fair employee for more than two decades, was killed when the grandstand roof collapsed on him. Ankerholz was planning to retire within months. He is remembered with a memorial fountain near the main entrance of the administration building.

On opening day 2005, the Kansas State quarter was launched with the help of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Couriers brought in $100,000 in fresh new Kansas quarters.

During that same fair, a sellout crowd watched a live performance of “Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor. Sebelius was a guest on the show, dazzling the audience with her ability to have fun with Keillor.

In 2007, on opening day, the House of Capper was rededicated. Capper had built the open verandah building as a place to rest and enjoy a cool drink of water. Originally there were rocking chairs and restrooms.

By 2008, the fair’s attendance was up about 10 percent. But things just kept getting better. The fair’s attendance in 2009 - 350,856 people - was its highest since 2000. By 2010 that was surpassed, with 354,184 coming through the gate. By 2012 there were 343,007 visitors to the fair.

A new record in raising corporate sponsorship money was set in 2010, when the organization raised $337,000 from more than 50 corporate sponsors. It was money the fair needed to help offset continued cuts to the funding it receives from the state.

Just as the 2012 fair was about to start, the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a lawsuit, claiming that fair officials were restricting the group’s free-speech rights by requiring it to shield people from seeing images of animal slaughter at its booth. PETA members said their freedom of speech was being denied with the fair’s request that they shield their new video from those just passing by. Fair officials have said that the video, which depicts graphic images, can only be viewable to those who want to step into PETA’s booth space. They came and followed the rules. Later they withdrew the lawsuit against the Kansas State Fair.

The fair continues to adapt to change, to move and grow with the times, but paramount to that they never stray far from its mission of providing agriculture, entertainment, educational programs and to provide the opportunity for commercial activity.

This story originally was published in the Hutchinson News on Sept. 1, 2013.

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