The Colorado State Fair is timeless — Teflon, a line in the sand, all served up with cotton candy and a footlong corn dog.
The big show in Pueblo just wrapped up its 149th run on Sept. 6.
Nursing a bum leg, I didn’t make it down this year, which I’m sad to report. The last time, I bought a tin rooster painted red, blue and green for 20 bucks.
The fair offered a lot: Sixty entertainers, 45 rides, 5,000 animals, 10,250 exhibits and a whole bunch of rodeos packed into 11 days. Little ol’ Pueblo attracted Nelly, George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers, Loverboy, Diamond Rio and more. These are people you may not have heard of lately, but "Bad to the Bone" never gets old.
The walk back from the pandemic, which effectively shut the fair down last year, is not a fast one. The first six days this year attracted 205,235, compared to 466,380 who passed through the turnstiles in 2019.
The fair is used to bad news. Depending on this year's receipts, the fair has lost money for 23 straight years, about $4 million a year between 2014 and 2018, according to a scathing state audit that cited poor management.
It’s a whispered suspicion that powerful, unseen forces in Denver are plotting to spirit away the fair to the National Western Center at Interstate 70 and Brighton Boulevard to right the ship.
The idea has risen to at least a murmur as the Denver location undergoes a taxpayer-backed billion-dollar transformation with public transit and a partnership with Colorado State University.
Good luck with that.
I’ve followed this question for a decade, and, if anything, Pueblo is more determined than ever to keep one of its signature assets. It has friends in high places, besides the fact both parties covet Pueblo County voters.
The fair is part of Leroy Garcia's life story.
“I remember being a little kid and it was always around Labor Day weekend, and I was born on Sept. 2 and right at the tail end of summer,” said the state Senate president who grew up in Pueblo. “I remember being a little kid going with my parents, and I remember my aunt and uncle who were from Denver would sometimes come down, and they'd say, ‘Hey, do you want to go with us?'
“You're a kid, and you've got all that great food, the exhibits and animals, and you have carnival rides and rodeos. I loved every bit of it. I still do. I drove by it the other night, and to see all the lights from the carnival rides and see all the people — it means something to you.”
This past session, the legislature passed House Bill 1262 — titled Money Support for Agricultural Events — that directed a total of $28.5 million to the National Western in Denver and $5 million for the fair.
That’s a pretty good chunk of the $76 million lawmakers carved out for agriculture.
But that’s not all. A special legislative committee is still working on a plan to spend $1.9 billion in remaining stimulus dollars. Garcia will certainly keep the state fair in that conversation.
“In my mind, it’s important that if we’re going to look at the Western Stock Show and say they need to be considered as a priority, then we also need to invest in the Colorado State Fair, and, fortunately for me, my colleagues agree.”
Combining the state fair with the National Wester "in my mind is non-negotiable,” Garcia told me.
“Pueblo is a melting pot for this state,” Garcia said. “It has so much to offer tourism, agriculture, Lake Pueblo is one the top destinations in the state of Colorado. We just opened Fisher's Peak State Park, and that quickly will become one of the top destinations. And Pueblo is home to heroes, the four Congressional Medal of Honor recipients."
The state fair's roots run deep here, since before there was a state. On Oct. 8, 1872, the Southern Colorado Agricultural and Industrial Association gathered up some public money and put on a carnival and livestock show. Colorado became a state four years later. The fair put down roots a decade later when the association bought 50 acres near Mineral Palace Park for $3,000 and spent another $5,000 to make it a showplace.
The fair has moved a couple more times, but it’s been at its current 102-acre site for more than a century. The first 14 buildings were collectively known as the Mexican Pavilion, and it included Pueblo’s police headquarters.
The fair fits in Pueblo. It's the buckle of the banana belt of the Arkansas Valley, a farm trade center famous for its namesake chiles.
My friend and colleague Ernest Luning pointed out the Arapahoe County Fair fits in its current home on the plains near Deer Trail. They learned the hard way after a century. The fair moved to its rural home in 2006, after it was held in Littleton, Englewood, Byers and, coincidentally, at the National Western Center for five years in the 1980s.
That's the gamble. The state fair is a lot more than gate receipts. To rip it out of Pueblo might make it something it is not, though profitable would be nice.