At the crossroads of New York state, near the intersection of the primary east-west and north-south highways, lies the Empire Expo Center, home of the New York State Fair.
With 107 structures and 21 permanent buildings on 375 acres of land adjacent to the Interstate Highway System, and with onsite parking for 24,000 vehicles and a mainline railroad spur, it is the largest, most accessible show in the state.
In 2001, for the first time in its 160-year history, fair attendance climbed over the 1 million mark during its 12-day run. During the rest of the year, the constantly active facility plays host to another million people for a variety of shows, concerts, educational events, expositions, conferences, conventions, reunions and much more.
In 1841, the New York State Legislature appropriated $8,000 for the “promotion of agriculture and household manufacturers in the State” through an annual fair, the first of its kind in the young nation. The Village of Syracuse, the center of farming interests in New York as well as the central point on the Erie Canal and a station on the developing railroad lines from Albany, on the Hudson River in the east, to Buffalo, the state’s western outpost, was selected for the two-day event.
The first fair was a huge success, both in exhibitor participation and attendance. It was estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000, mainly farmers, were in attendance. Despite rains that turned much of the temporary grounds to a muddy quagmire, crowds nearly overwhelmed the temporary facilities.
For the next half century, the fair did not have a permanent home. Twice, however, in 1849, after a hugely successful 1848 fair in Buffalo, and in 1858, when Syracuse became the first city in the state to host the event three times, the fair returned to its original site. In 1858 daily crowds of 20,000 turned out for the myriad attractions, which included speeches from two former presidents of the United States, Martin Van Buren and Millard Fillmore, and Governor John A. King.
A Great Iron and Oaken Wheel
It was at the 1849 fair in Syracuse that a giant, 50-foot tall, manually-powered wheel was introduced. According to The Empire Showcase, A History of the New York State Fair, “The structure was a great iron and oaken wheel with wooden bucket cars, large enough to carry either four adults or six children aloft from the end of each of the four arms. The revolving wheel was carefully counterbalanced, carrying the passengers ‘comfortably’ and safely around the circle of the wheel, enabling the riders to obtain a marvelous view of the newly chartered city and its suburbs. The wheel was operated by handpower and a system of ropes. The balance was such that the entire wheel could be turned by the strength of a child.”
The contraption predated the introduction of the Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Columbian Exposition by more than four decades.
Syracuse is the Choice
In 1890, thanks to the efforts of a prominent group of Syracusans led by James Geddes, the fair moved back to Syracuse, permanently. The Geddes group convinced the Agricultural Society and State political leaders that Syracuse was the best permanent site for many reasons, including its previous success, its geographic location and railroad facilities. Land was purchased by Geddes and his group and given to the State Agricultural Society with the understanding that the land could be used by the state only as long as the fair remained on the land. The state and the society made good on that commitment by declaring Syracuse the permanent site for an annual New York State Fair. Livestock buildings were constructed and a half-mile track was laid out.
The official budget for the 1895 New York State Fair was $109,639, with an income item of $53,769 “From the State.” A little more than a century later, in 1999, the budget for the Empire Exposition Center was in excess of $10 million. There was no contribution from the taxpayers of New York state for operating expenses.
The 125-acre tract of pastureland purchased by James Geddes and Syracuse Associates for $30,000 has more than tripled in acreage and the land and buildings more recently were valued at more than $115 million.
In the early days of the 20th Century, following the Fair’s permanent assignment to Syracuse, plans were drawn for a physical plant on a grand scale. Those plans included a number of huge buildings, elaborately decorated in a Greek classical mode, surrounding a central, park-like open area. Construction was begun and several of the structures were erected and remain as the multiple centerpieces of the Fairgrounds today.
Over the years, the Empire Expo Center has been expanded, buildings and grounds have been rejuvenated and revitalized, the race track was lengthened to a full mile oval for the 1901 fair, and the fair has continued to grow. In more recent years, buildings designed for summer use only have been winterized to accommodate the sometimes daunting winter climate of central New York.
Today, nearly 350,000 square feet of warm, indoor space is available at the Expo Center for winter events such as boat shows, giant farm machinery expositions, recreational vehicle shows, outdoor sports shows, automobile shows and more.
Events at the Fair
For more than a century, especially in the early years when it did not have a permanent home, the New York State Fair was a singular event. In the traditional sense, it still is. It is a once-a-year event, an annual extravaganza with each year’s exposition building on previous successes. In those early years, interest at the fair centered on agriculture, its tools and its products, as it does today. There were lectures and discussions featuring everything from “Selection of the Dairy Cow” to “Winter Feeding of Sheep” to “How Can We Encourage the Home Consumption of American Cheese?” For entertainment, band concerts and speech-making filled the mornings and the afternoon was taken up with trotting horse races and sometimes bicycle races. Evening presentations featured such extravaganzas as “The Fall of Pompeii,” featuring classical music played by “Conway’s Celebrated Band” and a volcano, “erupting” spectacular fireworks.
Auto and motorcycle racing came to the fair following the turn of the century, when such renowned names as Barney Oldfield, Ralph DePalma and Wilbur Shaw brought their speedy autos to town to race around the dirt track oval at breathtaking speeds approaching 60 miles per hour. The “air age” came to the fair in 1905, in the form of a dirigible full of (probably highly flammable) gas which navigated between the buildings at the Expo Center and up to heights of a reported 600 feet. And in 1910, J.A.D. McCurdy flew his Curtiss bi-plane three times around the area 200 feet above the ground.
Through the years, auto racing has been a staple at the New York State Fair, from the Indianapolis-style racing that featured most of the biggest stars on that circuit half a century ago, to the present-day stock car racing each year on Labor Day.
On-stage entertainment has evolved as well, from locally staged shows of the late 1890s and early 1900s to concert performances at the 16,000-seat trackside grandstand by most of the biggest stars in show business, from Frank Sinatra to The Beach Boys to Tina Turner and Whitney Houston to Britney Spears, and literally hundreds more. Additionally, the fairgrounds now features seven separate stages where at nearly any time throughout the day and evening the fairgoer will see, for free, professional and amateur performers.
A Fair for the People
The New York State Fair continues to be, as it has been since the beginning, for the people of New York. The state fair, like every fair before it, focuses the spotlight on the people and products of New York. In 1999, there were 32,227 entries for competition in categories ranging from cows and pigs and horses to sheep and llamas, from photographs to paintings to flower arrangements, from apple pies to every conceivable dish or dessert, from New York state pumpkins, and vegetables, to fruits and wines. Thousands of items in hundreds of categories are judged and displayed each year. Annually, cash premiums nearing $200,000 are awarded to the winners.
Each year, fairgoers are also greeted by 2,000 concessionaires, offering everything from opportunities to win giant stuffed animals to knives that will cut through concrete to foods ranging from the exotic to the ordinary. The growth and success of the 12-day fair have been spectacular, but in order to become totally self-sufficient, free of taxpayer support, the managers of the Empire Expo Center, home of the fair, have made it a year- round center for business, the arts, entertainment, education and recreation, at the same time carefully preserving its tradition and foundation of livestock and agriculture.
The Empire Expo Center is Operated Year-Round
It’s not just the state fair anymore. While the 12 days of the great New York State Fair bring measurable financial benefits to the central New York region and beyond, the real success story of the Empire Expo Center is the story of the year-round activities at the fairgrounds.
Although agriculture continued to thrive as the number-one industry in New York state through the middle part of the 20th Century, as it has into the 21st Century, the fair, agriculture’s premiere showcase, fell on hard times. There even was talk of abandoning the facility, which lay dormant for most of the year, and canceling the annual fair. The bill to the state’s taxpayers for maintenance of the facility and presentation of the exposition annually approached or exceeded a million dollars. The projected costs of rehabilitation and maintenance of the aging buildings and infrastructure cast a dark cloud over the future of the nation’s oldest state fair.
Nevertheless, in the early 1970s, the decision was made to revive the traditional fair, with emphasis on self-sufficiency and reducing the burden on the taxpayer. In fiscal 1974-75, the state operating subsidy for the fair was 34 percent, more than one-third of the total budget. That percentage was steadily reduced over the next decade and a half until, in FY 1990-91, for the first time, the fair’s operating budget of $8,552,683 was matched by revenues. Since that time, the books have balanced, ending a century and a half of subsidization by the taxpayers.
In the decade of the 1990s, attendance and revenues at the fairgrounds increased steadily. Since the initiation of an aggressive business plan in 1996, the growth has been dramatic. In 1999, fair attendance topped 900,000 for the first time in history, the magical million mark in 2001. Revenues increased an average of $1 million annually from 1995 to 2001, topping $13 million in fiscal 2000-2001. Each of the last six years, the Expo Center has accrued substantial operating profits.
With its miles of electrical wiring, water lines and heating and cooling plants, and buildings that require painting regularly, routine maintenance of the Empire Expo Center requires a substantial staff of carpenters, plumbers, painters, masons and mechanics. There are also gardeners, security staff, parking facilities staff and an “events crew,” on hand to help promoters stage literally hundreds of shows, expositions, conferences, dinners, wedding receptions and parties held annually in our buildings and on the grounds.
There is, as well, an administrative staff that spends five days a week (often six or seven), 52 weeks a year, planning the annual fair, scheduling and working non-fairtime events at the Expo Center nearly every weekend of the year. The permanent administrative staff books entertainment and activities for fairtime and the rest of the year, keeps track of the fair’s considerable financial obligations and oversees general maintenance and upkeep of the facility.
Reliable estimates project that as a result of the New York State Fair and off-season events at the Empire Expo Center, more than $120 million is spent annually in the local economy. On the average, more than $2 million is expended for capital improvements at the facility each year, creating literally hundreds of opportunities for local trades. This is in addition to 15,000 part-time jobs at fairtime and the full-time and part-time positions mentioned above.
In accordance with the fair’s mission, outlined by its founders more than a century and a half ago, the agricultural community is first priority at the Empire Exposition Center. But the facility also offers the advantages of some of the most extensive exhibit space in the state for events of all kinds.
The state fair is the largest and most historic exposition of its kind in the northeastern United States. The continued growth and profitability of the Fair has been assured by a permanent, professional, versatile staff who work as a finely tuned team; modernization of old buildings and addition of new ones; and aggressive, imaginative marketing of the fair and of the Exposition Center as a year-round facility.
This has converted a taxpayer expense into a profit center for the state of New York. The Exposition Center has become a major player in the economic well-being of the region.
by Don Pickard
Don Pickard was the chief editorial writer for Syracuse Newspapers and now devotes his time to public relations for the Empire Expo Center and the New York State Fair.