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A Fair To Remember

The Mid-South Fair marks its 150th anniversary as fair attendance lags across the country.

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To some, changes at the Mid-South Fair may not seem, well, fair. The closing of Libertyland earlier this year means no Zippin Pippin, no stomach-churning Revolution, and no turns on the Grand Carousel.

But the fair, which opened last Thursday and runs through October 2nd, turns 150 this year. And with national trends pointing toward declining fair attendance, the Mid-South Fair faces a challenge, especially considering the loss of Libertyland.

"In the last couple of years, we've had a slight decline [in attendance]," says Billy Orr, general manager of the Mid-South Fair. "But the weather has so much to do with it. Last year, we had a Sunday that we didn't even open because of rain. That's one of our big days."

A story in The New York Times last month highlighted lagging attendance at fairs throughout the nation. Voters in Nebraska even approved a constitutional amendment to direct lottery winnings to save their state fair from bankruptcy.

In the last 30 years, many fairs have shifted to a more carnival-like image after years of focusing on agriculture. "Early on, [the Mid-South Fair] was an agricultural fair where we showed livestock and farm products and equipment," says Orr. "We still have some agricultural exhibits, but the focus is more on rides and food now."

The Times article attributed the recent decline in fairs' popularity to "an era in which entertainment can be found almost around every corner." With video games and the Internet, Orr admits it's hard to pull kids in.

"We're doing everything we can to get the word out because those games sure do keep the kids at home," says Orr.

To compensate for the absence of Libertyland, the Mid-South Fair has brought in eight new thrill rides. The fair also hired public relations firm McNeely Pigott & Fox last year to re-brand the fair and update its image.

"We wanted to tie in the history of our fair with a nostalgic look, so we've taken old photos and created messages to encompass what people really come to the fair for: food and rides," says marketing director Travis Flee.

PR firm Carpenter Sullivan Sossaman designed the fair's billboards and bus ads, many of which include humorous messages about typical fair food.

"In this area, we love our food. Especially our deep-fried stuff," says Walter Rose with Carpenter Sullivan Sossaman. "Not everybody likes the rides, but everybody pretty much wants to get a Pronto Pup."

Orr doesn't know if the campaign made a difference in last year's attendance, which reached about 300,000. They're expecting 400,000 attendees this year. "I don't forsee any slowdown with this fair," says Orr. "I don't see why there would be."

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