The new director of the Kansas State Fair sees the Hutchinson platform as a hub of economic activity with a wide range of lively, and livery, attractions.

Robin Jennison has blazed a path from the Statehouse, where he capped his 10-year run by reigning as the House speaker, to serving as secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism under Gov. Sam Brownback. He recently left that post to oversee the state fair.

The annual end-of-summer event features animalistic bawling, brawling, yawping and caterwauling — and that's just from the foot-stomping political debates. There's also music, rides for kids, livestock shows, business exhibits and a smorgasbord of fried delicacies, like Pronto Pups and Oreos.

If you can put it in a deep fryer, Jennison said, somebody's going to cook it.

"I'm really kind of a people watcher, and I mean it's a fun place to go to see all the different people from obviously different walks of life," Jennison said. "And I think one of the biggest attractions is the food."

Jennison, who grew up in Healy, assessed the fair and reflected on his time drawing attention to the great outdoors during a conversation for Capitol Insider, the podcast of The Topeka Capital-Journal that deals with people and ideas in state government.

 

About 300,000 people attend each year.

"You always hope to have the fair grow, and I think that we can make it grow," Jennison said. "I think the challenge the state fair has is really understanding what it is and where it came from, and it is originally about agriculture. Agriculture is always going to be a big component of the fair."

Among the most popular attractions is the birthing center.

"I don't know where they get them, but they get a bunch of pregnant animals and have them at the fair all fair long so that little kids can witness what a live birth looks like," Jennison said.

Some people have even asked for a text alert system so they can be notified when a birth is imminent.

In the coming years, efforts to improve infrastructure at the fairgrounds will be assisted by new legislation that grants sales tax authority to transactions there.

One of the challenges, Jennison said, will be repairing Bison Arena, which has at least $5 million in deficiencies and is too outdated to function as an arena. The fair's board hasn't yet decided what to do with the facility, Jennison said.

"It's an iconic building at the state fair," he said. "It would be a tragedy to tear it down."

The Expo building — where most things happen, he said — also has structural problems and needs some roof work.

This year's Legislature also added two new state parks — the Flint Hills Trail and Little Jerusalem, a mile-long stretch of chalky badlands between Scott City and Oakley in western Kansas.

Long-term funding for wildlife and parks remains a riddle.

Jennison said he anticipates a drop-off in hunting as baby boomers get older. That could have an impact on the agency's finances, which are tied to a tax on guns, ammunition and fishing equipment.

The agency has focused more attention on fishing, he said, because it is more of an entry-level outdoors activity. That includes a new, intensive program for stocking lakes with walleye, which are better suited to Kansas than largemouth bass.

Still, there are plenty of other people who enjoy the outdoors but aren't contributing to the parks budget. They include people who revel in bird watching, paddling and hiking.

"The debate that is just started across the county," Jennison said, "is how are we going to fund all of that if we don't have as many hunters and anglers?"