Shawn Mayernick takes the reins
By David A. Kelm
The Illinois State Fair holds a special place in the psyche of Springfield. Much like President Abraham Lincoln and the horseshoe, Springfield takes great pride in the Illinois State Fair. And, really, our fair city can only benefit from consistently mentioning arguably our nation’s greatest President in the same breath as an open-faced sandwich slathered with cheese sauce. I mean, Constitution Hall and the Liberty Bell must feel the same way as old Abe when our brothers and sisters from Philly rhapsodize about what makes a Philly cheese steak so great, right?
But the subject here isn’t U.S. history and its relation to regional sandwich favorites. As the weather turns truly warm and sticky, we hearty, proud denizens of Springfield begin to turn our thoughts to our traditional end-of-summer bacchanalia – the Illinois State Fair! Our state may only have a stop-gap budget, we may not have a contract with union employees, we may not know what is coming next or what Illinois will even look like in the near future, but, by God, we will have an Illinois State Fair.
To this table – set with memories of horse races, political rallies, sold-out Grandstand shows and queasy Happy Hollow rides – steps a new barker with the passion, energy and vision of a state fair true-believer. Shawn Mayernick was named bureau chief of the Illinois State Fair – Springfield in February under a reorganized state fair operation. For the first time in anyone’s memory, the state fair at Springfield and the state fair at DuQuoin have separate managers, each reporting to an overall fair manager, long-time fair executive, Kevin Gordon.
Mayernick comes to the fair from the Prairie Capital Convention Center where he spent three years as director of business partnerships. “My goal with the fair is similar to what we created at the center,” said Mayernick. “I want to create a positive experience for each fairgoer that includes unique vendors, great grandstand acts and an overall fun day for families.”
To move the fair to the next level, Mayernick fully supports the idea of an Illinois State Fair Foundation. Creation of a foundation empowered to raise money and secure sponsorships to assist with facilities and infrastructure is working its way through the Illinois General Assembly and is being shepherded by Springfield Representatives Tim Butler and Sara Wojcicki Jimenez. “The creation of a public-private partnership is the right thing to do for the Fair,” said Mayernick. “Indiana has a similar structure in place that recently provided $4 million to rehabilitate their Coliseum.”
Just as the Prairie Capital Convention Center undertook a successful campaign to attract sponsors and naming opportunities for businesses, Mayernick would like to see local, statewide and national businesses invest in the Illinois State Fairgrounds with sponsorship dollars. Mayernick notes that the fairgrounds are in need of upgrades, making private dollars perhaps the best avenue for care and upkeep. “Improved facilities and enhanced infrastructure for the fairgrounds will only help Springfield’s economy,” said Mayernick. “The fairgrounds are not only busy 11 days in August. Events 12 months out of the year add to Springfield’s tax base.”
“I am very focused on making the fair a memorable experience for each family and each attendee,” Mayernick said. To that end, state fair leadership is looking at providing support for vendors who have been on the fairgrounds for decades as well as bringing new exhibits, rides and events to the fair this summer. “Culler’s Fries has been with the state fair for something like 70 years – people look for those fries every single year,” Mayernick noted. (As a loyal Culler’s customer, I would add that the line for hot fries with vinegar is always way too long and Mayernick should really look at having one of those fry stands installed at the end of my cul-de-sac. But I digress.)
Mayernick and his team are also looking at adding some 21st century technology to a 19th century-style summer interlude. Mayernick pointed out that families look to make a day of the fair and “we need to make sure they know where everything is and what is going on.” To that end, this will be the first year for the Illinois State Fair app for your smartphone. The app is a free download and promises to “change the way you go to the fair,” Mayernick proclaimed. The app includes a schedule of daily events, a GPS-enabled map, results from competitions and photo-booth borders for all of your fair selfie needs. Grandstand tickets can be purchased with the app and there will be a smartphone scavenger hunt. Most importantly, the app will have a searchable “Food Finder” function. No longer will you have to dash from location to location looking for alligator on a stick. With the fair app, you’ll be able to search for your favorite fried food and the map will direct your little feet to the perfect vendor. “We want the fair to be memorable and to help families fully experience everything the fair has to offer,” said Mayernick.
As always, the Illinois State Fair celebrates agriculture, the economic driver that continues to lead the way in our great state. Beyond the tractors and combines and giant vegetables and swine-judging, though, the fair is also our Disney World, our World’s Fair. Every year, there is something new to see and something new to explore. Sometimes it’s great, like fried cola or a high dive show. Sometimes not so great, like air-brushed anything or state troopers in wool uniform shorts. Regardless of personal preferences, there is a new vibe this year courtesy of a new management team brimming with fresh, exciting ideas. In the enthusiastic words of Mayernick himself: “The fair is going to be awesome!”
David A. Kelm is a Springfield area attorney. He can be reached at DavidAKelm@gmail.com.