After a record year of revenue, the State Fair is looking to build its first conceptually new neighborhood in decades.
The sporadically themed area once known as Machinery Hill — the 10-acre northern tip of the Fairgrounds — is being slated for an extreme makeover.
Discussions of the potential project — still in its conceptual stage and without projected costs — took place during Fair officials’ annual meeting this week. Fair officials note nothing will happen for at least a year.
But Fair general manager Jerry Hammer stated emphatically that the time has come for change, and a little thematic stability, on the old Hill.
As the agricultural economy changed and farm machinery was made to order, the Fair’s “Machinery Hill” area lost its namesake character.
“Less than 2 percent of people actually live on farms. It’s decades now, 30 years, since we’ve seen much farm machinery up there,” Hammer said.
Since then, Fair officials have added an assortment of exhibits, such as the Pet Center and Giggles Campfire Grill.
But nothing to tie it together.
“What it really needs is a real permanent anchor,” Hammer said. “The southern two-thirds of the Fairgrounds have very distinct neighborhoods, a lot of character. The north end, because of what it had historically, it lacks anything like that.
“We knew it had to be something you didn’t have anywhere else. We need something brand new.”
And for the first time Hammer can remember, there’s a chance to do just that.
“Up until this north-end project, everything we’ve done has been to replace or renovate. … This is the first really new thing. Even the West End, as cool as it is, has the same elements it had before.”
The plan, aside from a new ticketing area for the northern gate, has three parts:
— A “high-tech” kids exhibit that can easily be changed and updated, focusing on the “future of agriculture,” including advances in the field such as urban farming and hydroponics.
— A hall to house traveling exhibits, such as those offered by the Smithsonian or the Science Museum of Minnesota. “The Beatles exhibit in Vancouver would have been a great exhibit,” Hammer said.
— An outdoor venue for the performing arts, including theater, dance, comedy or styles of music that wouldn’t fit well on the Fair’s other stages.
“There’s a desire for more activity,” said Brian Tempas, design principal for the Cuningham Group, a Minneapolis-based architectural firm that has built other major projects at the Fair, including the West End Market in 2014.
Hammer said the Fair would likely go with the Cuningham Group for the Machinery Hill development as well.
As far as a time frame, Hammer said, “2017 is best case, but I would sure hope by 2018. It’s still so early in the whole process.”
Since Fair officials have been talking about a north side makeover for over a decade, why now?
A lot of it had to do with finances, Hammer said. Last year the Fair took in its highest grossing revenues in history.
In 2014, the Fair’s West End project cost a little over $18 million — $12 million of which was borrowed, with the remaining coming from the Fair’s own working capital.
Hammer said the Fair was paying that debt off “very aggressively,” so that in a couple years they’d be able to tackle another big capital project.
“They’re hoping to get (materials) to show to potential fundraisers by late spring,” Tempas said.