Sioux Empire Fair at 80: ‘It’s a huge milestone’

Aug. 7, 2019

With the 80th Sioux Empire Fair in full swing at the W.H. Lyon Fairgrounds this week, fair president and CEO Scott Wick hasn’t had much time lately to reflect on the past.

He does note, however, that from the first iteration in 1939 to the 80th in 2019, the fair naturally has changed in countless ways. But even just in Wick’s seven years in charge, he said he has seen a palpable evolution in the atmosphere and makeup of the fair.

While the fair provides the usual carnival classics such as Ferris wheels, contest booths and deep-fried everything, Wick said his staff has worked hard to set apart the fair with its more unique attractions.

“People expect more than a typical county fair,” Wick said, “and we deliver.”

Some of the changes that Wick has overseen during his tenure include a shift to a free-entertainment format. Other than big-ticket events such as last weekend’s Keith Urban concert, Wick said all of the shows are free with the price of fair admission.

This year also brought a change to the midway, which is being run for the first time by Crabtree Amusements. Its venues include the The State Fair of Louisiana.

“They’re one of the best in the business,” Wick said.

Increasing the agricultural presence at the fair has been another priority. With the addition of facilities such as the Pipestone Discovery Barn in 2014, Wick said that has been accomplished.

“We have evolved intentionally to circle back and focus on agriculture,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to bolster our livestock shows and provide agricultural education to our guests. The Pipestone Discovery Barn in particular has been a huge success.”

And it seems like fair guests agree with him. Stephen Heiman, a Sioux Falls resident who has been attending the fair consistently since 1975, said he has enjoyed seeing an increased agricultural presence at the fair in recent years.

“I grew up on a farm, so I like that agriculture in South Dakota is on display here,” Heiman said. “It’s less about big agriculture and farming than it was way back when, but I like that they have lots of animals and judging contests now.”

For the 80th anniversary, there are a few special attractions at the fair.

“We encouraged each area of the fair to do their own promotions,” said Monica Nussbaum, a member of committees overseeing the 80th anniversary, and the buildings and grounds.

South Dakota FFA will continue the agricultural education initiative by hosting discussions about the evolution of agriculture over the past 80 years. The arts center will have contests revolving around the anniversary. And in the Expo Building, there is a small exhibit with displays showing the fair through the years. Artifacts on display include two old race cars, a ticket from the first fair and old maps of the fairgrounds.

“You can still see the footprints of those events,” Nussbaum said. “It’s fascinating to see what’s changed and, for me, what’s stayed the same, like some of our sponsors that have endured.”

Like Wick, Nussbaum said she also has seen the fairgrounds change and improve, especially on the real estate side, during the eight years she has been a board member.

“From my first year on the board, we’ve done a remodel nearly every single year,” she said. “We take care of the space; we dive into the buildings and bring them back. We are constantly improving and investing in it literally from the ground up.”

With 80 years come and gone, Wick said he feels the fair will continue to endure as a late-summer tradition for years to come.

“It’s the perfect time of year as it’s so close to the start of school,” he said. “It’s also the perfect location, and it brings $15 million to the area each year. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that we have a great city and a great community behind us.”

The fair runs through Saturday. For admission prices and hours, click here. 

Sioux Empire Fair at 80: ‘It’s a huge milestone’

“People expect more than a typical county fair, and we deliver.” As the Sioux Empire Fair turns 80, its leader said intentional changes are helping it stay relevant.

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