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State Fair reports nine-year attendance high

Gov. JB Pritzker, organizers of the Illinois State Fair and others cut the ribbon at the main gate of the Illinois State Fairgrounds last month.

The Illinois State Fair – a multi-million annual agriculture festival in Springfield – reported a nine-year attendance record this year.

The state Department of Agriculture, which hosts the fair each year, reported on Tuesday that about 708,000 people attended the fair, an 11 percent increase from 2022.  

Department officials attributed the increase to good weather, renovations of fairgrounds facilities and a discounted admission fee for one of the fair days.

“When you’ve got to compete with a handheld device, you’ve got to up your game in terms of entertainment,” State Fair Manger Rebecca Clark told Capitol News Illinois.

Clark also said a new promotion – dropping the adult admission fee from $10 to $2 for one day – helped raise attendance for that day by roughly 27,000 people compared to the previous year, a 57 percent increase.

“The 2023 fair also greatly benefited from new promotions and big attractions aimed at bringing visitors to the fairgrounds mid-week to capitalize on discount admission days,” Department of Agriculture Director Jerry Costello II said in a news release.

Costello and Clark also credited recently completed renovations at the multi-purpose arena, one of the fair’s venues, for bringing people to the fair. This year, the arena hosted a monster truck rally, a demolition derby, a tractor pull event and a rodeo.

The $8.6 million renovation was completed earlier this year. It was funded through the state’s Rebuild Illinois capital program and is part of a broader $58.1 million plan for fairgrounds infrastructure projects.

The Department of Agriculture said they expect to work on other upgrades and renovations to the fairgrounds in the coming months, including $9.5 million for road construction, $11.9 million for heating and cooling system upgrades and $4.6 million for roof replacements.

In addition to one-time capital funding, the state has increased the amount budgeted for state fairs for four of the past five years. In both this year’s and last year’s state budget, lawmakers allocated $6.9 million for fair operations, a 25 percent increase from 2018’s allotment.

State officials were quick to celebrate the fair’s increased attendance, with Gov. JB Pritzker in a news release highlighting the “shattered attendance records,” but estimating the size of state fair crowds can be tricky.

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The figures reported by the state represent several factors, rather than the number of tickets sold or a complete count of visitors. 

“Attendance is determined based on the number of tickets purchased and turned in at the gates,” Clark said in a statement. “In addition, a formula provides multipliers, based on national averages, to count visitors who cannot be tracked by a ticket due to the fair’s various free admission days.”

The department says this calculation method, which was adopted in 2015, is an industry standard. The change in the counting method contributed to attendance estimates dropping by roughly half the year it was introduced.

In 2014, the last year under its old crowd estimation method, the state reported 845,000 attendees, about 200,000 more than its figure for 2023. In 2002, the state estimated 1.2 million people came to the Springfield fair, according to state news releases.

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Capitol News Illinois

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. It is funded by donations from the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government. Capitol News Illinois provides year-round, daily coverage of the Legislature, including committee hearings; state agencies and issues; state office holders; and the Illinois Supreme Court and legal matters.

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