AUBURN — The New York State Fair is experiencing record growth, and Troy Waffner wants that trend to continue.
Waffner, the state fair director, was the guest speaker at the Auburn Rotary Club luncheon Tuesday. He highlighted the fair's successes and welcomed critiques of the annual 13-day event. The critiques, he explained, help him understand what the fair needs to improve.
For three years in a row, the fair has set all-time attendance records. In 2018, the fair drew nearly 1.3 million visitors — an average of roughly 98,000 attendees per day. With the boost in attendance, the fair has been ranked as the third-largest in the country.
While music acts and food vendors receive attention, Waffner reminded the Rotarians that the fair's mission is to promote New York agriculture. There is a cost to carrying out that mission, though. He estimated that highlighting the state's agricultural sector costs the fair $600,000 annually.
"We have to find a way to pay for agriculture on the fairgrounds," he said.
It helps the fair has drawn record-breaking crowds. There has been some criticism of the fair's admission promotions, such as Dollar Days — $1 admission on the opening and closing days of the fair — $3 admission on Thursdays. But Waffner told the Rotary Club that there is a benefit to the promotions: When people come to the fairgrounds, they tend to spend money — an average of $80 per fairgoer.
"It's worth letting people in on a Dollar Day or $3 Thursday," he said.
Waffner attributed the fair's recent success to the transformation at the fairgrounds in Geddes. In 2016, the Grandstand and race track was demolished to free up 63 acres of land. The fair has used that land to expand its midway, establish a 313-site RV park and a 16-acre festival area.
Other improvements included the construction of a new main gate, the relocation of the New York State Police exhibit and some renovations to the Iroquois Indian Village.
The largest project funded by the state's $120 million investment in the fairgrounds was the 110,000-square-foot Exposition Center, which opened last summer. The facility is not only important to the fair during the summer, but it's a way to lure non-fair events to Onondaga County.
The state announced Monday that more than 1 million visitors attended non-fair events in 2018, a record for the fairgrounds. Waffner noted that they are already on pace to break that record this year.
Waffner also shared how the fair uses feedback from visitors to improve the event and the venue. Fair officials, he continued, read comments on the fair's social media pages, emails and comments posted on news websites. Reading those messages help the fair identify areas of concern and how they can fix them for next year.
What's become a perennial issue is parking. The fair has drawn record crowds, but with that comes complaints about the lack of parking near the fairgrounds. The fair sought to reduce congestion by expanding its partnership with Centro to provide more shuttles during the fair. One of the improvements near the fairgrounds was a $27 million project to pave the Orange Lot, one of the fair's main parking lots.
When the Orange Lot was expanded to hold about 7,000 vehicles, Waffner thought it would never be filled to capacity. However, on two occasions during the 2018 fair, the lot had to be closed because it was full.
The fair is continuing to explore options for parking, including the acquisition of land to create new lots and improving existing areas.
One Rotarian pitched the idea of having rail service provided by regional companies, such as Finger Lakes Railway, during the fair. Waffner liked the idea and said he would "take a look at it."
Whether it's parking or the makeover at the fair, Waffner wants to remain focused on the fair's core mission. He said highlighting agriculture is especially important now that less than 2 percent of the population is involved in farming.
"The more you can do to put people's eyes in front of cows, sheep and goats and understand where our food comes from — and that it doesn't come from Wegmans, Tops and Price Chopper — the better off we all are in the long run," he said.