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County Fair board thankful for response to Thursday's storm

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news Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- Kandiyohi County Fair officials are grateful for the public's cooperation in evacuating the fairgrounds Thursday evening as a severe thunderstorm moved eastward from Swift County toward Willmar.

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President Tom Gustafson and Secretary Cheryl Johnson said the fair had had a good day going until about 6 p.m. when law enforcement officers said a severe storm with 70-mph wind was 53 minutes away.

"I saw the little hook on the radar. It was headed right for our fairgrounds,'' said Gustafson.

He had wanted to consult with the other 19 fair board members, but they were scattered around the fairgrounds helping and supervising other volunteers, and officers said Gustafson didn't have time to talk to them.

Rather than call for evacuation and to avoid a mad rush for the gates, Gustafson told fairgoers over the public address system that the storm was approaching and that it would not be safe for people to remain at the fairgrounds. The bus service sent two extra shuttles to get people to their cars at the Community Center.

As people departed, officers and fair officials passed the word from building to building. In the end, about 25 people remained in the basement of the log cabin; about half a dozen stayed in the basement of the 4-H food stand; and about nine people were sheltered in one of the heavy livestock buildings. During the storm, one cow had a calf.

Gustafson said people who were known to be at the fair were accounted for. He thanked law enforcement officers for their advice.

"People were so cooperative,'' he said. "Officers were impressed with how smooth it went. I was, too.''

Gustafson said he could have lived with criticism if the storm had not struck, but said he did not want anyone hurt or killed.

"I just didn't want that on my mind,'' he said.

Gustafson said longtime fair board members could not recall a time when the fair closed early because of threatening weather. He said 99 percent of the comments to fair officials about the early exit were positive.

"The people were very supportive of our position,'' he said. "Even Saturday, people were telling me we did the right thing.''

Most of Thursday's cancelled events were rescheduled. The 2010 fair ended Saturday.

Fairgoers sweated through two days of hot and humid conditions. Gustafson said attendance had been good up until the storm on Thursday.

The threat of stormy weather on Friday probably kept some people away in the morning, but by 3 o'clock many folks were walking the grounds. Gustafson and Johnson said attendance Friday night was spectacular, and the grandstand was full for the 161 tractors pulls, which was a very good turnout.

"We had to wait for about 20 geese to fly out of the infield, it was so wet. Water stood there,'' he said.

The number of exhibitors in the hall of industry was up, due mainly to the increase in booth sales to political parties during this election year.

In the culinary area, Johnson said the number of baked goods was down slightly due to the excessive heat.

Officials say the fair needs three good days: two to pay expenses and the third to raise revenue needed to make repairs to about 30 buildings and to care for the 33-acre grounds.

Despite this year's weather, officials are optimistic and are looking forward to next year's fair, which is scheduled for Aug. 10-13, 2011.

"I feel our fair has really been growing over the past years,'' said Gustafson. "Hopefully we can pull up our bootstraps and keep going here for the fair next year.''

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