The buckets are long gone.
Longtime visitors to the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex can probably visualize strategically placed buckets that previously and notoriously cluttered the Cameron Street lobby, to capture raindrops dripping through the leaky roof.
But during the pandemic shutdown, a new roof went up. And those infamous leaks aren’t the only issues that got plugged. A long list of aging infrastructure projects are now checked off the state-owned facility’s wish list. Amid millions of dollars in lost revenue due to a slew of pandemic-cancelled expos and events, $21 million in capital improvements over two fiscal years were pumped into the iconic Harrisburg landmark.
For those who equate the Farm Show with farm-fresh scents, it may be difficult to hear the word “fresh” as a positive description. Nonetheless, a freshly face-lifted facility awaits visitors returning to the Pennsylvania Farm Show this month, along with a variety of events—even bridal shows—slated for 2022 and beyond.
“The building is a historical treasure,” said Shannon Powers, Department of Agriculture press secretary. “The improvements were basically intended to enhance public convenience and public safety, while making the facility more sustainable and energy-efficient—those were the three big categories.”
Farm Show Fixes
You may notice upgrades before you even step foot inside the million-square-foot, circa-1930 complex.
A roundabout off of Industrial Road “should reduce traffic speeds and create better traffic flow,” Powers said. The parking lot is reconfigured and landscaped—not only to improve rainfall absorption into the adjacent Paxton Creek, which eventually empties into the Chesapeake Bay—but to maximize capacity by adding 155 spaces to a new grand total of 8,957.
The animals will also benefit from site improvements. Outside exercise areas were upgraded and enclosed with new fencing.
Façade improvements include repointed bricks, new energy-efficient windows, and stonework on the Cameron Street and New Holland Arena entrances. Artwork, the crowning glory encircling the one-of-a-kind facility, was also restored.
“The frieze was originally done by Versus T. Ritter in 1937 as a tribute to Pennsylvania agriculture as the number one industry in Pennsylvania,” said Sharon Myers, complex executive director.
Horses, cattle, ducks, goats, even little bunnies, are etched into the concrete edifice.
“It was interesting to see the masons tasked with helping us repair the building—how much care and detail they put into the cows and other animals,” Myers said.
Inside, some historical details weren’t quite as quaint.
“A moat was installed in the larger arena at one time, so it could be used as an ice rink—but it was never used. It made it difficult to clean, so the moat was removed,” Powers said.
More upgrades are underfoot and within walls. Flooring was leveled and replaced, and asbestos removal—ongoing for years—is now complete. The sprinkler system’s water supply line was replaced, eco-friendly water bottle refilling stations were established, and electrical panels and a new sound system were installed. There are new loading docks, and “aging coal-burning furnaces were replaced,” Powers said.
Thanks to new LED lighting, “it’s noticeably brighter in the complex,” Powers said. Many of the upgrades, she noted, will have long-term impact on maximizing efficiency while reducing operating costs for “a dual benefit.”
History in the Spotlight
Although COVID-19 halted the complex’s public events, many behind-the-scenes operations supported pandemic relief efforts.
“The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank was located there—it was quite an emergency operation,” Powers said. “We were barred from talking about the location of our PPE stockpile—that was a federal requirement. And vaccine clinics began because it was a convenient location—it was on the bus line.”
Those were the latest in the complex’s string of historic roles.
“During World War II, the building was used as a training center for the New Cumberland Air Command,” Powers said. “There was a mechanics’ bay under the floor of the North Hall, and [during pandemic upgrades] we found a Rosie the Riveter outfit.”
And there’s another parallel between the pandemic and World War II eras.
“The building is an absolute treasure—not just as a venue for agricultural events, but in times of emergency—both during the pandemic and World War II, the only other time when the farm show hasn’t been held,” Powers said.
The complex reopened to public events last summer, but January’s signature event may be the litmus test for Pennsylvanians’ readiness for large-scale events.
“We strongly recommend that people wear masks,” Powers said. “We made changes to the way the event is configured to diminish pinch points to keep crowds down. There are rigorous measures in place for animal health, and we’ve met international standards for public places like airports and concerts—those are in place in terms of cleaning protocols being ramped up.”
Build it, and they will come. Improve it, and will they come back?
Powers is cautiously optimistic, noting that food vendors, in particular, are playing a guessing game with food prep quantity.
“It’s kind of a blend of excitement and fear and trepidation for the amount of planning that’s involved,” she said.
Typically, the Pennsylvania Farm Show draws 450,000 attendees and generates $39 million in economic impact, according to Mary Smith, president of the destination marketing organization, Visit Hershey & Harrisburg.
“The Farm Show is so rich in tradition—it’s a great way to kick off the start of a brand new year, and it will be interesting to see how it rebounds after having a year off,” Smith said. “Being the largest agricultural expo that takes place under one roof across the nation, it’s pretty special for our region. The magnitude of [reno] projects completed is incredible … and those improvements will only help events like the Pennsylvania Farm Show come back.”
The 106th Pennsylvania Farm Show takes place Jan. 8 to 15. For more information and additional 2022 events, see farmshow.pa.gov.
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