SPRINGFIELD — In perhaps an ironic twist, it was the loud roar of race cars zipping around the Grandstand racetrack that ended an otherwise “quiet” Illinois State Fair.
That was the assessment Sunday of many fair vendors, who said the mostly favorable weather was not enough to boost sales, which rebounded last year after a flood-plagued 2016 fair but have trended downward over the past decade.
“It's been a quiet fair,” said Kelsie Vose, whose family runs the Vose Corn Dogs stand near the Grandstand. “We've had our busy nights, don't get me wrong. But I've heard from a lot of vendors, not just ourselves, but most of the vendors we've spoken to have all been on the same page about that. It's not just us, it's everybody.”
There was essentially one major rain event during the 11-day fair, and it canceled the Thomas Rhett concert Thursday evening. But with most other days featuring warm, sunny weather, longtime vendors pointed to a series of other possible reasons for the thinner crowds: a less appealing Grandstand concert lineup, the continued closure of sites like the Coliseum building and the beginning of school for area children.
“We've kind of hung in there, but the unfortunate part is that the attendance levels have been way, way off,” said Joan Ehlers, owner of McMeen’s Taffy.
Ehlers, whose family has sold taffy at the fair most years since 1924, said her business is down 50 percent from 10 years ago. At her stand, near the closed Coliseum, she pointed to vacant stretches of Central Avenue that used to be lined with vendors.
“There's just not the traffic (by the Coliseum), and the spending is down without the people here,” Ehlers said.
Illinois State Fair manager Luke Sailer said some weekdays were a little slow with the beginning of school and people working during the day but that weekend crowds were good.
“Vendors, it's one of those things that if even if they have a great day, it can always be better. We always want bigger and better,” Sailer said. “I think the crowds have been good on the weekends, especially. And those are usually the big days for them.”
Though most anecdotally concluded that attendance was down this year, Sailer said this year’s fair turned out “really well.”
“I think attendance has been good,” he said. “The overall message of this year's fair and the bicentennial theme has been really important as we celebrate Illinois agriculture (and) Illinois as a state with our 200th birthday.”
Sailer said the physical improvements to the grounds received positive reactions from fairgoers. The improvements included the repaving some of the main roads inside the fairgrounds, along with landscaping improvements.
“It makes everything pop,” Sailer said of the improvements. “The flowers pop, everything just kind of looks more vibrant and colorful. So, I think that's the first initial thing people see.”
With the focus immediately turning to the Du Quoin State Fair, which begins Friday, fair officials said it will likely be weeks before official attendance numbers are released. But for vendors, the verdict is in.
“I think that this year, people weren't out,” Vose said. “They weren't eating.”