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New Entrance at State fair open for bus riders

FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. -- The Minnesota State Fair has a new main entrance.

The new transit hub, unveiled Thursday by fair officials, will handle about one-third of the annual 1.8 million visitors — more than any other single entrance.

The $15 million project also includes the West End Marketplace, with a museum, amphitheater, two restaurants -- one with the fair's first rooftop patio, with a view of the Midway -- and several smaller vendors.

At 22 acres, "It is the biggest change to the fair landscape since FDR was president," fair spokeswoman Brienna Schuette said of the project, which replaced the aging Heritage Square exhibit area.

The transit hub will give bus riders their own entrance — streamlining the process of getting to the fair.

For decades, most fair visitors have jammed through entrances along Como Avenue. Cars and buses backed up along Snelling Avenue, sometimes for more than a mile.

But the new hub will route 80 percent of the buses to the opposite corner of the fair. This will make getting there faster and easier — so more people will take the buses, easing car traffic in neighborhoods.

The stream of buses will avoid Snelling Avenue, and enter via the University of Minnesota elevated transitway.

In terms of the number of people who will use it, it will be three times bigger than the traditional entrance gate on Snelling Avenue, according to Steve Grans, the fair's transportation manager.

The West End Marketplace near the hub will transform a dead-end part of the fairgrounds into one of the best locations for businesses, according to Stephanie Shimp, co-owner of a nearby new restaurant.

"I think it's a premier location, just fabulous," Shimp said. Roughly 600,000 attendees per year will be pouring into the fair though the hub.

About 40 percent of fairgoers arrive via bus — and that number will now increase, predicted fair spokeswoman Schuette.

Shimp said she rides with her family to the fair every year on the bus.

"It's just so easy to get right on the bus," she said. "And now you are going to end up right where you want to be."

Next to the hub, the West End Marketplace will include a new museum of state fair history — the History and Heritage Museum.

Schuette said the fair is partnering with the Minnesota Historical Society to manage the museum. It will be open year-round — operating as a museum during the fair, and as a venue for events at other times.

The area will include the new Schilling Amphitheater and booths for new vendors.

Schuette said several of the new vendors will be recycling materials into new products. For example, Machine Age Lamps uses old industrial materials to create lamps, while another will sell jewelry made from bicycle parts.

One new restaurant will be LuLu's Public House, with the rooftop patio.

"You will see the Midway on one side, and look down on the amphitheater on the other," said Charlie Burrows, co-owner of LuLu's and several local bars and restaurants.

Among other food innovations, Lulu's will serve lobster on a stick, macaroni-and-cheese on a stick and walleye tacos.

The other new restaurant will be the Blue Barn, the first restaurant on the fairgrounds operated by the Blue Plate Restaurant Co., which has eight restaurants in the metro area.

Co-owner Shimp said the building will be sided with reclaimed antique-wood siding.

It will offer fairgoers food including chicken in a waffle cone, meatloaf on a stick and a beef sandwich called the Farm Hand-Wich.

Shimp personally has been testing recipes for months.

"I did gain 10 pounds over the Christmas holidays because of the State Fair," Shimp said.

Burrows is glad his company is building the restaurant.

"We believe in it, or else we wouldn't have done it," Burrows said. "People will find us. With lots of new shopping in the area, there is a reason to come here.

"I think it has a lot of upside."

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.