OWATONNA — The new poster is up and the online tracker is ticking: there are 364 days until the next Steele County Free Fair.
As the numbers start to come in, an exhausted Scott Kozelka simply states that “a whole lot of people” came out for the 2019 fair — his second in the role of fair manager. The exact number of attendance is never a perfect science, but works off an equation that takes parking, alcohol sales, grandstand tickets, and ATM transactions into account. The total numbers hadn’t been calculated by Monday afternoon, but Kozelka happily reported that from 2018 parking had more than doubled, total alcohol sales were up 16%, grandstand ticket sales were up 20%, and ATM transactions were up 13%.
“It was a fun week,” Kozelka said with a smile. “Vendors are happy, sales were up, and it was a near perfect week of near perfect weather. Everyone had a great time.”
After the threat of severe weather that almost — almost — delayed the opening of the fair, the only real weather hiccup came on Saturday night after the fair had closed for the day when the fairgrounds were hit with some straight-line winds that claimed a few tents and vendor booths. Kozelka said that people were out early Sunday morning to help each other put things back together, but there were a few vendors who were unable to reopen for the last day of the fair.
Either way, Kozelka couldn’t have been more pleased with how the fair went over last week.
“You know it’s busy when it takes a good amount of time to get from point A to point B,” he laughed. “We have people putting their down payments on their booths already for next year, so that’s always a good sign.”
Kozelka said that it is hard to believe that everything was able to come together so well when only three weeks ago a new barn was still being built while the north end of the racetrack was still torn up.
“We were out there the day before the fair opened rolling out dirt,” Kozelka said, explaining that they had to construct a walkway in the new reconfigured area that was once the racetrack. “We simply asked our vendors to work with us this year, but everyone was really excited about the two-and-a-half acres of new land we had to use.”
A bonus that Kozelka — as well as others — noticed included the lack of congestion of the north end of the fairgrounds that used to only have one walkway. Kozelka said that several vendors who had been on the north end for years commented on an increased amount of patrons and that some fairgoers noted that they were able to get to some attractions like the Village of Yesteryear and Auto Museum for the very first time.
“When you totally recondition an area, you’re still figuring things out and having to fix things as quickly as possible,” Kozelka said, noting that the Saturday night rain and the freshly moved dirt caused the demo derby on Sunday to start behind schedule. “All we can do is take that experience and improve on it for next year. Every year is a learning experience and we always get great feedback and ideas from the public.”
The Steele County Free Fair is already preparing for the next fair with a theme of “Food, Fun, and Friends a Plenty in 2020.” The fair is scheduled for Aug. 18 – 23.