OWATONNA — It has been three weeks since the 2019 Steele County Free Fair concluded and final numbers are still rolling in.
The new Steele Saloon on the north end of the fairgrounds is reporting a $25,000 profit, which will go directly towards paying off the Radel Pavilion Loan. Numbers are still being crunched for the Beer Garden, but reports are showing that sales were “down considerably” from 2018. Director Mark Ditlevson, who is one of three directors that oversees the Beer Garden, stated that last year was an unusually big year for beer sales and that it was to be expected that the sales were down in comparison.
Steele County Sheriff Lon Thiele was also able to share his numbers with the fair board during their regular meeting Thursday night, presenting his annual fair report.
Lost or stolen property items shot up this year, going from 88 inquiries in 2018 to 138 this year. Thiele stated that many of the items that were believed to be stolen happened in the midway, specifically when a ride didn’t allow the individual to have any bags or other lose items. He believes that a person would set the items down near the ride and when they returned to retrieve them they were already gone.
This was the quietest year for lost persons on the fairgrounds, which Thiele asserted included both children and adults. Only 32 individuals were separated from their parties during fair week, and Thiele was happy to report that everyone was safely reunited.
“Trespass notices served is the number that is very disappointing to me,” Thiele told the fair board as he pointed out that the number had doubled from 2018. “Out of these 22 notices, 21 of them were juveniles ranging from 17 years old to our youngest at 10 years old.”
When someone is served a trespass notice on the fairgrounds during fair week, Thiele explained, that person is not welcome back on the fairgrounds under any circumstances for the remainder of the fair. Thiele stated that some parents may feel that the fair is a “dumping ground” for a daycare facility, leaving many teenagers and children unsupervised. In one situation, Thiele explained to parents who picked up their child that the child had been serviced with a trespass notice and so, therefore, was not allowed back, only to see the child with their parents at the fair the following day.
“It’s just frustrating, because these kids are unfortunately learning the bad behavior from somewhere,” Thiele said. “That same profanity they were using I heard from the parents the next day. We take it seriously keeping our fair a family friendly place.”
The overall law enforcement calls — which ranges from intoxication, theft, fights, escorts, safety hazards, threats, and more — took a dramatic increase in 2019, totaling 91 calls — 35 more than the previous year. Showing a map of the fairgrounds at the meeting, Thiele drew a thick red line around the midway, stating that 90% of the calls happened within that area.
“There were a lot of juvenile fights,” Thiele said with disappointment. “Granted this year we didn’t deal with the same issues of adults fighting. This was still upsetting to see.”
Thiele also talked about one incident in the Beer Garden that occurred after it had closed down for the night on Saturday. After the special deputies had cleared everyone from the building and left it for the night, a crowd of 25-30 people rushed back into the Beer Garden as people were cleaning due to incoming rain. By the time law enforcement was able to respond back to the area, people had begun making their way behind the bar. Fortunately, the tabs are turned off every night and no one was able to access anything.
“This is the first time that has ever happened,” said Rick Ellingson, the director of safety at the fair. “And it was all because of the weather.”
Thiele suggest that in the future, the fair should either close the doors to the beer garden until everyone completely vacates the area or consider keeping a few special deputies on until patrons leave the fairgrounds for the night.
Thiele briefly touched on the death at the fairgrounds that took place on Friday morning that is being investigated as a suicide. Offers were called to one of the rides on the southeast corner of the midway shortly before 9 a.m. that day for a report of an unresponsive male who was found hanging from the ride. The ride was still covered by a canvas when the body was found and could not be seen by anyone outside of the canvased area, according to Thiele.
“Hopefully this will never happen again,” Thiele said. “But suicide awareness is real and it is out there. There are signs and I encourage everyone to be aware of those signs.”
Mike Johnson with Steele County Emergency Management was also present at the meeting and shared a quick overview of how the two weather scenarios were handled during fair week. The first scenario took place on Tuesday, just before the opening ceremony.
“Tuesday was really a tough call because the storm was heading in a direct line for the fairgrounds,” Johnson explained. “Rotation had already been detected by the time we got the call.”
Luckily, he said, the storm dissipated as it approached Steele County, causing the opening ceremony to be delayed only 30 minutes. Johnson said that his emergency management team works closely with the National Weather Service in Chanhassen, getting frequent updates whenever severe weather is possible for the area.
The second weather incident took place late Saturday night and early Sunday morning when high winds knocked over a few tents and signs at the fairgrounds. Johnson said that they can set up the alert program that they already have to also pick up wind speeds as well as lightning.