160th Illinois State Fair kicks off Thursday

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The 2018 Illinois State Fair by the numbers: 160. 200. 30 million. 4. And 1 “Crazy Mouse.”

The state fair kicks off Thursday, the 160th edition, amid the backdrop of the Prairie State’s 200th birthday.

After years of fairgrounds deterioration exacerbated by a political deadlock that left the state without a budget for two straight years, there’s $30 million available this year for improvements — the roads have already been repaved.

And to celebrate, the fair is offering a 20 percent drop in the price of a beer, to $4. The fair runs through Aug. 19 and admission is unchanged at $10 except for Thursday’s Preview Day, Agriculture Day on Aug. 14 and Family Day on Aug. 19, when $5 gets you in the gate.

“We want people to come out and enjoy a nice, cold beverage after work, invite their family and friends and co-workers,” state fair manager Luke Sailer said. “We don’t want people to break the bank in coming out here to enjoy the Illinois State Fair.”

The “Crazy Mouse” is the state fair midway’s first-ever roller coaster.

First presented in 1853, the fair has endured as an annual festival except when it was canceled by war in 1862 and from 1942-45, and by competition from Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. This year, it provides a grand stage for the state’s birthday, whose theme is “Born, Built and Grown in Illinois.”

“The state fair has its roots in agriculture, and that’s what’s ‘Born, Built and Grown in Illinois,'” said state Rep. Tim Butler, a Springfield Republican and member of the Bicentennial Commission. “This really underscores what it is to be Illinois and the importance of agriculture.”

But financial problems, even before the record state budget impasse of 2015-17, have wreaked substantial wear on the fairgrounds in Springfield and in DuQuoin, where the state operates a smaller fair at month’s end. Deferred maintenance at the two sites runs to $185 million. The most glaring example of decline is the fairgrounds’ historic Coliseum, closed for two years because of unsafe conditions.

What’s worse, the (Springfield) State Journal-Register reported last week on the weak performance thus far of a fundraising foundation Gov. Bruce Rauner formed two years ago.

Instead of boasting a hoped-for $2 million to $3 million a year, its 2017 income was $32,000. Raymond Poe, director of the Department of Agriculture, which has no connection to the private foundation, noted that Rauner and his wife, Diana, just last month re-opened a renovated Governor’s Mansion for which Diana Rauner raised $15 million in private contributions.

“I’m hoping the emphasis will shift now to the Illinois State Fair,” Poe said.

Poe said most fairgrounds roofs will be replaced and a $7.5 million infusion into the Coliseum, built in 1901, will have it ready for the 2019 fair.

Although that is only a fraction of the money needed for exhaustive updates, Sailer called the initial investment “a total game-changer.”

“What we plan on doing with that $30 million is going to change the landscaping and the beautification of the Illinois State Fairgrounds drastically,” Sailer said.

The Grandstand again will be the center of live entertainment. Illinois-born country singer Brett Eldredge leads a lineup that also features Boy George and Culture Club, Halestorm, Luke Combs, Ludacris, Foreigner and more. The fairgrounds are dotted with free live-music stages as well.

The midway’s carnival rides will include the state fair’s first-ever roller coaster. Sailer promises to give it a whirl.

“I’m not a roller-coaster person,” he said, “but the ‘Crazy Mouse’ looks like something I can handle, so I’ll probably get on it at least once.”