More than a new name at Washington State Fair

Rebranding continues along with new attractions

kari.plog@thenewstribune.comSeptember 20, 2013 

The iconic “cube” outside the Gold Gate is gone. So are the familiar cow heads, which looked out for decades from atop the ticket booths that boxed in the fairgrounds in Puyallup.

Now, an open-air entrance, detached booths and a towering new logo welcome visitors to the reborn Washington State Fair, which wraps up Sunday.

Fair officials say the makeover at the main gate along South Meridian in Puyallup epitomizes the rebranding of the fair known for decades simply by the name of its host city.

“To change your name, that requires you to think a little bit deeper about what your responsibilities have evolved into,” fair CEO Kent Hojem said.

Tearing down the boxy walls and allowing passers-by to see inside the fairgrounds was a step toward making the fair more visible and accessible, part of a larger goal to draw more statewide visitors.

The new Gold Gate was part of nearly $3.4 million in capital improvements — an overhaul that corresponded with the three-year, $1 million rebranding effort.

The fair’s sweeping upgrades have included adding wheelchair-accessible seating at the grandstand and relocating the popular Piglet Palace at SillyVille.

The physical improvements are the first wave of large-scale projects since 2004 and 2005, and they were all done with guests in mind, operations manager Glen Baskett said.

The fair is a nonprofit organization, and spokeswoman Karen LaFlamme said fair leaders have been in “saving mode” for several years to prepare financially for the overhaul. Last year, for example, $1.15 million was set aside for maintenance and future projects such as the rebranding.

Money comes in from several sources, including booth rental rates, admission fees and renting out facilities the rest of the year.

“Unlike a lot of entertainment venues these days, the fair doesn’t receive any governmental funding,” Hojem said. “Since we don’t have that safety net, we have to make sure we operate as a responsible business.”

He said officials thought carefully about which improvements to prioritize.

The rebranding was a great opportunity for staff to take a closer look at what was neglected or outdated, Hojem said.

“We didn’t even realize where the dusty corners were,” he said. “It was a good reminder to us to always pay attention to the dust in the corners.”

Officials say the most challenging part of the overhaul was replacing Puyallup Fair signs. It has required them to put their scavenger hunt skills to the test; LaFlamme said it’s like finding thousands of Waldos.

“We had a hundred pair of eyes looking for signs,” Hojem said. “I’m sure there are some that we missed.”

The fair changed more than 1,100 signs on and off the fairgrounds. Fair staff still are working to locate signs that weren’t updated.

The state Department of Transportation finished updating highway signs, paid for by the fair, in early August.

Thrill-seekers will appreciate the two most costly upgrades, which added one roller coaster and renovated another on the midway.

Rainier Rush, the fair’s first looping-inversion coaster, was installed near the Orange Gate. Its nearby historic sibling, the Classic Coaster, went through a five-year renovation that replaced its wooden pieces section by section.

More work could lie ahead for the Classic Coaster if officials decide to paint it white like the older version; a decision won’t be made for at least another year.

Also making its debut this year is Evergreen Hall, which showcases agriculture and horticulture displays, floral displays, and grange exhibits. They are brought together in a building that used to hold commercial exhibits. Agriculture and granges were formerly in the Showplex building, while floral was located near the Red Gate.

Hojem called Evergreen Hall an important piece of the rebranding effort, uniting a variety of state-fair staples.

“It’s an opportunity to shine the spotlight brightly on those different but very much related areas,” he said.

Meanwhile, workers completed a pair of smaller projects in the SillyVille area of the fair: a new attraction for kids and a permanent home for a returning one.

Tractor Tracks, which allows kids to drive pedal tractors on a test track, is in the first phase of a three-phase project that could take more than two years to complete. It debuted this year.

Also, the popular Piglet Palace has been moved to a more suitable location after outgrowing its spot next to the old dairy barn. The new barn showcases sows and their piglets; one litter is born before the fair starts and another arrives midway through.

kari.plog@thenewstribune.com

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