Although the sultry summer of 2010 is nearly over, slowing down is the last thing on Art Blakey Jr.’s mind. For Blakey, chief of police of the Minnesota State Fair, it’s time to ratchet everything up several notches as he prepares for his umpteenth fair.
Blakey surveys the office: laptops are booted and rows of dispatch radios stand at attention on a nearby table while two officers in an adjacent room answer phones and rifle through files. This building, called “the house,” was a former manager’s residence and now serves as the police station.
“Everything’s ready to go,” declares Blakey, who’s been the chief (mostly a part-time position) since 1980. He exerts a calm, powerful command of a room with his resonant baritone voice and his size-he’s a big man. Definite assets in his line of work.
“People think we have a lot of crime at the fair, but mostly it’s petty stuff,” says Blakey, 75. He began working the fair as a Ramsey County reserve deputy in 1965. Five years later, he became a full-time deputy sheriff.
Back then, Blakey says, the fair hired police officers and a chief to work during the fair, and they’d go back to their jurisdictions after Labor Day. “After it ended, they’d leave and lock everything up until the next year,” he says. Now, the fairgrounds hosts events such car shows, antique sales and horse shows year-round, which means there is always a need for a police presence.
Every August, Blakey hires between 200 to 250 officers from around the state. He says it’s a good starting place for people who want to go into law enforcement because the new officers get to work with retired police officers, many of whom have 25 to 30 years of experience.
The police presence throughout the fair is a positive thing, Blakey says. “I want people to feel safe. We have an officer in every corner of the fair.” Blakey is also in charge of the parking lot and the two medical aid stations.
A lot goes on behind the scenes to make the Great Minnesota Get-Together continue yearly without a hitch. When the fair begins, Blakey starts work early. On the first day, he’s there at 4 a.m. “I want to make sure nothing goes wrong,” he says. “One year, somebody forgot to unlock the gate. Fortunately, I had the keys.”
Blakey himself doesn’t wear a uniform when on duty and prefers using the powers of persuasion when dealing with people. “If there’s a problem I want to talk them out of it,” he says.
Last year, more than a million people attended the fair. “For those 12 days, we’re the second-largest city in Minnesota,” Blakey said. “When I started, we did get some pick-pocketing, but now we’ve educated people to watch themselves. Our biggest thing is what we call ‘lost parents,’ but if a child is lost, we put the description out there through dispatch and we have reservists and law enforcement at each gate. Years ago, you’d come through the gates and you would only see officers on the Midway. Now, they’re everywhere.”
No child-or adult-goes missing at the fair for long. “About seven years ago a senior got lost,” he says. “His bus went back to Willmar without him and, in the meantime, we searched everywhere for him.” Assuming he got on the wrong bus, they began running through the list of busses, checking every one. “Then, we got a call from the hog barn. They said, ‘Hey, we got a guy sleeping in here.’ This senior was a hog farmer so that’s where he went.”
Other than lost seniors, lost children and petty theft, there’s seldom anything major. Sometimes they encounter fights or teenagers trying to sneak alcohol into the fair. “The few fights we have-it’s not strangers-they know each other,” he says. And they are on to the teens: “You get young teenagers now with water bottles. If unde-age kids are passing bottles around we’ll say, ‘What’s in that water?'”
At the end of each fair season, Blakey contemplates retirement for a nanosecond. “Every year I say I’m not coming back, but I always do. It’s like a real family for me.” A couple of years ago Blakey had surgery, and as his wife drove him home from the hospital, he asked to drive by the fair. “My wife, Carolyn, said, ‘The fairgrounds are still there!’ But I made her drive through just to make sure!”
Blakey spent 35 years with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office and retired as commander of the East Metro Gang Strike Force in 2003. He started out as a patrolman, worked undercover in the first narcotics division in the sheriff’s department and later worked downtown in the warrant office and in the jail. Then, in 1996, he was shot in the line of duty.
“Someone tried to rob a VFW [at Fisk Street and Concordia Avenue], and after the shooting, I came back to a desk job,” he says.
Blakey says he has been blessed to work with great people at the fair. “I enjoy every minute of it. Sometimes, I just get in the car and drive on the fairgrounds. The big thing is the community, seeing the people coming back every year.”
Natalie Zett is an award-winning writer who lived in inner-city Detroit before moving to St. Paul. Her first encounter with the Minnesota State Fair was while living in a dormitory at Luther Seminary just west of the fairgrounds. She mistook the end-of-the-night fireworks for gunshots and called 911. Her dorm-mates never stopped reminding her of the night she thought St. Paul was under siege.