SPRINGFIELD — The 162nd Illinois State Fair is set to open Thursday in Springfield, and fair officials said they expect this to be one of the best iterations in years.
The 366 acres the event spans have never looked better; buildings, some more than 100 years old, have been remodeled; and 50 new vendors have been added, state officials said.
“What an experience this has been,” John Sullivan, director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, said Thursday during a media preview of the event. “I’d say over the last 30 days, to watch the fairgrounds transform into what you see here today, is just quite remarkable.”
This is Sullivan’s first year as director of the state agency overseeing the fair, the theme for which is “Building Our Future.”
One of his first decisions, he said, was to rehire Kevin Gordon as fair manager. Gordon had served in that position in 2016 and 2017.
“Our main initiative this year is to bring families back during the week, during the day,” he said.
To that end, adult admission prices were slashed from $10 to $5 Sunday through Thursday, Gordon said. Tickets for seniors remain at $3 and are free for children ages 12 and younger.
The fair is also offering three new promotions aimed at increasing daytime family attendance.
One, running for four days beginning Aug. 12, gives fairgoers a chance to win prize packages valued at more than $600 — awards include tickets to Grandstand concerts, Multi-Purpose Arena Event Tickets, a seasonal parking pass, 20 carnival ride tickets, a bucket of donuts and others.
To enter the Midweek Motivator contest, attendees register at kiosks located throughout the grounds.
The State Fair will also become a “living treasure map” this year, Gordon said. Three chests will be hidden every day for 10 days, with hints published on the event’s social media page. A hat, T-shirt, coffee mug, lanyard, lapel pin and $50 Dublin Pub gift card go to those who can find the gold boxes.
Finally, whenever fairgoers hear the “Jaws” theme song play throughout the grounds, participating food vendors will cut prices on selected menu items by 20 percent. Gordon called this promotion the “Feeding Frenzy.”
“It gives me pause to think about the significance of the Illinois State Fair and the memories it brings to everyone who comes every year,” Department of Natural Resources Director Colleen Callahan said. “For me, my parents met at the Illinois State Fair. They brought me here when I was 6 months old, and I haven’t missed one since.”
This year marks her 68th consecutive fair, she said.
Back this year is the Coliseum, which was closed for renovations in 2016 because of “structural issues,” Sullivan said. The construction crew removed the roof and wooden “skeleton” of the building and replaced it with steel.
After roughly a $12 million restoration, it will be a “highlight” of the fair, Sullivan said.
But a focus on Illinois’ agriculture community will be an important focus this year, too, he said.
“The fair was created as an ag fair and it kind of drifted in and out with the focus, but I am trying to bring that focus back, because I think agriculture is the number one business in this state — $19 billion it generates in revenue,” Sullivan said. “We want to highlight what agriculture means to the state.”
A recent addition to the grounds is the display hemp plants, newly legalized by the General Assembly and through the federal 2018 Farm Bill. A Department of Agriculture staff member will be on hand every day, Sullivan said, to answer questions fairgoers have about how the crop can be used and how it is grown.
“We thought it would be an opportunity to put some plots here on the grounds so that we can help to educate people about what hemp is and how it’s different. It’s part of cannabis, but it’s different from marijuana,” he said. “It’s probably the number one issue that I’ve had the most calls and correspondence on since I’ve been here to the department.”
The Agriculture Department received applications for more than 20,000 acres to grow hemp, Sullivan added.