Minnesota State Fair: Who’s in Charge?
In 1865, Ramsey County donated its poor farm to the state to be used as a State Fairgrounds. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota State Fair)

Minnesota State Fair: Who’s in Charge?

Who has authority to cancel the fair? And other burning questions about the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

Minnesota State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer would like to dispel a persistent rumor he’s heard among fairgoers. No, there is not a quintet of families in Florida that run the Minnesota State Fair.

“I think they got it confused with the five families in ‘The Godfather.’ Either way, no. There aren’t five families in Florida,” Hammer said.

So, if not the Corleones, the Tattaglias, the Barzinis, the Cuneos and the Straccis, who does run the Minnesota State Fair?

The Minnesota State Agricultural Society

Way back in Minnesota’s territorial days, counties started to hold fairs as a way to put their strengths on display in the hopes of attracting new residents. As that happened, counties formed agricultural societies to put on their fairs.

John Stevens, an early resident of Minneapolis, suggested Minnesota start a territorial agricultural society to get all the counties involved.

The Minnesota Agricultural Society was founded in 1854. It’s still around — and still running the fair.

Delegates from county fairs in Minnesota’s 87 counties elect nine board members for the Minnesota Agricultural Society, one from each of nine regional districts. Each county gets three voting delegates.

The tenth member of the board is elected by delegates from 44 different producers’ associations, ag and business groups in Minnesota, like the Minnesota Honey Producers Association, Livestock Breeders Association, Apple Growers Association and others.
Minnesota State Fair livestock showing

(Photo courtesy of Minnesota State Fair.)

The president of the board, by tradition, is its longest-serving member. Also by tradition, the president serves for two years, then retires from the board, meaning there’s usually at least one open seat every two years.

But the board’s functions are limited when it comes to day-to-day operations. “They function as a corporate board, so they provide corporate oversight,” Hammer said. “Broad policy, budget approval, hiring a CEO. I think the best way to summarize it is that it’s their obligation to make sure the fair is well-managed, not to manage.”

Each year, the Agricultural Society board selects a CEO for the fair. There’s no limit on how many times someone can be chosen, though. Hammer has been in the role for more than two decades.

Buildings and taxes

In the early days, the Ag Society put on a few fairs here and there, and in 1859 — the year after Minnesota’s statehood — put on the first state fair.

“Fairs then were two to three days. It was like a little tent show, and they moved around,” Hammer said. The fair went to Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester, Red Wing, Winona and Owatonna. One year, the fair was held in present-day Midway, right where the Target on University Avenue is, Hammer said.

Soon, leaders decided it would be good to hold the fair in the same spot every year. Minneapolis and St. Paul fought relentlessly over who would get the event.

In 1885, on the suggestion of Henry S. Fairchild (if his name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the namesake of the state fair mascot), Ramsey County donated its poor farm to the state to be used as a State Fairgrounds.

Because of its location, at the intersection of Como and Snelling avenues, you might think the fair is in St. Paul or Falcon Heights. But it’s not.

Under Chapter 37 of Minnesota law, the fair is its own thing. “Any part of the State Fairgrounds which is within the boundaries of a city or other political subdivision of the state is detached from the city or political subdivision.”

The fair has its own cops, who work for the Minnesota State Fair Police. They’re required to be full-fledged peace officers, and while some are year-round, many of them come from other police departments in the state to work for some of the 12 days of the fair.

State Fair vendors with structures that stay up year-round at the fair lease the land that their buildings sit on from the fair. Staff makes decisions about leases. Vendors pay real estate taxes to Ramsey County based on the value of the structure, plus pay sales tax on what they sell.

The State Fair pays taxes on ticket sales, a big part of its revenue.

The fair’s self-sufficient, meaning it doesn’t get financial support from the state. In 2002, it did create the Minnesota State Fair Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money to help maintain older buildings and put up new ones, like the Miracle of Birth Center.
Miracle of Birth Center

(Photo courtesy of Minnesota State Fair)

The Agricultural Society also has its own bonding authority. It issues revenue bonds for major capital projects, like renovating the Grandstand.

No fair

Under Chapter 37 of Minnesota law, the Agricultural Society is required to put on the Minnesota State Fair at the fairgrounds every year.

That doesn’t mean the fair has happened every single year since its inception.

In 1861 and 1862, the fair wasn’t held as a result of the Civil War and U.S.-Dakota War. In 1893, there was no fair due to scheduling complications with the Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago. In 1945, fuel shortages stopped the fair from going on, and in 1946, the polio epidemic was cause for cancellation.
Minnesota State Fair Police badge

(Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

It’s not crystal clear who has the authority to cancel the State Fair. Hammer said it was the Health Department during the polio epidemic and the federal government during WWII.

MinnPost asked people at the Legislative Reference Library and Minnesota House Research just who has the statutory power to actually shut the fair down. They came to the conclusion the answer to the question is kind of murky.

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“Chapter 37.15 (requires) the Society to hold an annual fair, so if they don’t that’s a crime,” said Colbey Sullivan, of Minnesota House Research. “But the governor has general national security and peacetime emergency powers to declare an emergency, and possibly under that authority, in the event of, I guess, a terrorist attack or impending disaster, the governor might be able (to).”