Fair View of the Future

The Kansas State Fair has a long and storied history in Hutchinson.

But that history isn’t one of peaceful ease. It’s a story filled with political subterfuge. It’s filled with envious and covetous communities who wanted to make sure the fair, its attractions, its visitors and their money would remain in their town for generations into the future.

Around the turn of the 20th century, and up to 1912 when Hutchinson won the fight for the fair, the story Hutchinson told of itself was quite different than the story we tell today. Then, we broadcast ourselves as the “Fair City” and we reminded the rest of the state that we were an oasis on the prairie – a proud and prosperous community that was clearly the best place for the fair to call home. Hutchinson offered to give the state a large parcel of land, and voters approved a $50,000 bond issue to help establish the fair – not a negligible amount by the accounting of the day.

News today that other communities might like to host the fair should come as no surprise. Its economic impact can’t be understated – upwards of $120 million by some reports. And this happens year after year after year. Long married couples, who met and fell in love on Ye Ole Mill, return today to share the wonders of the Kansas State Fair with their grandchildren. Likewise, the excitement and energy of the 10-day party – along with the numerous events hosted on the grounds – add a vibrancy to life in Hutchinson I, sadly, think we sometimes forget.

The Kansas State Fair’s home is Hutchinson. It always has been. And it always can be, if that’s what we as a community want.

The hard truth is that we live in an age of disruption. Retail, manufacturing, information, government, travel, and, yes, entertainment, all are in the midst of radical change. When the fair was established in Hutchinson in 1912, those few days in September were a welcome break from the monotony of life; today for a few dollars we can buy a Virtual Reality headset and slip into an alternative universive of our choosing.

The fair, and Hutchinson, cannot escape this reality. The question, really, is how we might respond to a changing future, and to this warning shot about the Kansas State Fair. This must have an honest conversation about the fair, what it means for our community, and whether it’s something we want to keep. If the answer is no, we can wait for other communities to court the fair, while we start developing a plan for the empty space and buildings that will remain in the core of our town.

If we want the fair to always call Hutchinson home then we can get to work and show the sort of resilience we’ve demonstrated time and time again – a resiliency that dates all the way back to those early beginnings when we were little more than a hardscrabble prairie town.  

We faced the same dilemna when the NJCAA announced it was considering other locations for the NJCAA basketball tournament. Hutchinson rallied, and voters overwhelmingly approved a $29.5 million bond issue to renovate the Hutchinson Sports Arena and keep the tournament’s $1.3 million annual impact in Hutchinson.

I’ve lived here with all of you for a long time. We’ve endured some hard blows. We’ve watched our neighbors struggle, and we’ve seen businesses leave. We have, at times, felt pretty beat down and defeated. I know I have.

But what we’ve lost is only part of the story – there’s another story to be told about that we are, and our future. We can carry forward a narrative of a waning city, or we can map out a horizon of our choosing. I prefer the latter, and think we have a good foundation upon which to build.

I, like you, am not happy about this recent turn of events. I’d like to rest easy and know that the Kansas State Fair will remain in Hutchinson well after I’m dead and gone. Though there’s reason to feel good in the time being – assurances that legislation to move the fair won’t advance this year, and a bill to use state sales tax money from the fair to finance capital improvements – I think it’s premature to think this debate is over. There’s a saying that “nothing ever dies in the legislature.” I suspect that will be true here, and this idea to let competitive bids for the fair will develop further in the coming years.

Change is not often a welcome guest, but rather an uninvited intruder. Yet, it’s in the response where unimagined success can be found. The pressure point of disruption isn’t the time to dig into to well-worn positions or engage in a conflict of wills; it’s a time for Hutchinson’s leaders to exercise constructive cooperation and creative problem solving rooted in the truest spirit of community.

We have in front of us an opportunity to re-imagine what the Kansas State Fair looks like in the next 100 years, and in the process, what Hutchinson looks like, too. We have an opportunity to be innovative, creative and give ourselves the freedom to dream big dreams. I believe we have the right people, in the right places, at the right time, to create the future we envision for ourselves – and to carry forward and improve upon the dreams those early leaders of Hutchinson set in place for us.

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