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Washington State Fair plans how to run a ‘city within a city’ each year

On any given day during the Washington State Fair in Puyallup, crowds that rival the city’s population visit the fairgrounds.

Daily and total attendance numbers are no longer publicly available, but fair officials maintain that the 17-day event brings more than 1 million people to Pierce County’s third-largest city.

Adding that many people to a population of 37,000 poses many challenges for organizers and city officials. Hosting so many guests requires extensive services, fair CEO Kent Hojem said.

“Basically, for 17 days we run another city within a city,” he said. “We have enough stuff to operate a town.”

A lot of planning goes into managing the effect of the fair.

It employs a full staff of fire, police and communications officials to keep fairgoers safe, Hojem said. In addition to monitoring the fairgrounds during its hours of operation, officials participate in planning sessions before, during and after fair time.

Daily safety meetings cover first-aid incidents from bee stings to more serious injuries.

More in-depth meetings help staff members prepare for specific challenges. The sessions review everything from the weather and crowd estimates to the challenges that go along with specific concerts or events.

The meetings are a small part of a larger plan for managing the fairgrounds. Here is a snapshot of major community and environmental effects and how the fair plans for them.

MANAGING WASTE

Waste Connections manages trash, recycling and compost on the fairgrounds in September and year-round.

Keith Kovalenko, the company’s district manager, said that in September his staff collects about 1,200 tons of material, including about 500 tons of garbage. That represents 55 percent of the annual total collected at the fairgrounds.

Of the nearly 1,000 tons of compost, yard waste and wood collected annually, 70 percent is collected in September.

Three to five Waste Connections employees work overnight all 17 days of the fair, pulling trash bags by hand and dumping them in larger receptacles outside the fairgrounds before they’re shipped to a nearby landfill or compost facility.

Recycling and cutting back on waste is a top priority for fair staff, Hojem said. That effort includes using less bedding in the animal pens and increasing the amount of materials recycled.

Drivers collect cardboard, plastic bottles, aluminum cans, metal, mixed paper and other recyclables, Kovalenko said.

The percentage of fair waste diverted from landfills has steadily increased. In 2011, the annual rate was 36 percent, and this year Kovalenko estimates it will reach 62 percent.

In another environmentally conscious effort, the fair has worked to save energy by upgrading lighting in buildings. While it is difficult to keep up with changing technology, Hojem said, the fair is moving in the right direction.

Fair spokeswoman Karen LaFlamme said the fair is about 90 percent done changing out the older lights.

“That means there will be new technology that comes out next week,” she quipped.

TRAFFIC CONTROL

It has been about a decade since fair officials have done a traffic study, but congestion in and around Puyallup always increases during at fair time.

LaFlamme said staff works closely with the city and the state Department of Transportation to cut back on road construction and monitor problem areas on roads and highways.

This year, that included limiting construction at the state Route 167 Puyallup River Bridge during peak fair hours.

Traffic is a major talking point during daily planning meetings. Parking is a challenge as well.

“We run out of parking on weekends,” Hojem said. “Many of our neighbors around us capitalize on that.” (Many neighboring businesses and residents park vehicles in lots or on lawns to make extra cash.)

Looking ahead, the recently approved Sound Transit parking garage to be built near Puyallup High School by 2020 will add parking for fairgoers.

There can never be too many options, Hojem said.

“It’s a constant topic of conversation,” he said of parking and traffic flow.

To handle the challenges for now, the fair has continued to look for other transportation options.

This year, Hojem said that included bringing back Pierce Transit express buses and working with Sound Transit to offer Saturday Sounder commuter rail service.

As for monitoring problem areas during fair time, Bill Fisher is on the case.

He is the superintendent of traffic, and monitors the routes fairgoers navigate to parking lots and fair gates. He makes sure access points don’t get bogged down and notifies Puyallup police when there’s a problem.

“I drive the routes that the fairgoers use,” Fisher said. “We want them to be in a good frame of mind when they get there.”

Ken Davies, Puyallup’s streets supervisor, said new technology has also helped monitor and adjust traffic flow.

Electronic readerboards at major highways and access points monitor vehicles traveling on busy routes. If a route is experiencing high volume, the board automatically redirects commuters to a more suitable one.

“During the entire fair, the system is able to monitor and respond on its own,” Davies said. “It’s an excellent improvement.”

It’s important for the city to take a lead role in managing traffic during the fair because it is more equipped to do so, Davies said.

“It’s what we do day in and day out,” he said. “We want the fairgoer to have a good experience. Nobody wants to sit for 45 minutes just waiting to get into a parking lot.”

NOISE IS EXPECTED

Hojem said noise from the fair is somewhat unpredictable.

“It is a challenge,” he said. “We try to be a good neighbor.”

It’s expected that noise – from concerts and white noise generated by crowds – will travel throughout Puyallup. Neighbors generally expect a high volume of fair visitors will generate some noise, Hojem said.

“For 17 days we’re hosting the world’s largest backyard barbecue,” Hojem said.

Fireworks, a popular fair attraction on Friday nights, aren’t a nuisance, he added.

Many comments from residents about them are positive, he said, because the fair focuses “on color, not sound.”

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