LITTLE FALLS -- This Mississippi River town of 7,500 is poised to receive an estimated 100,000 visitors this weekend for the annual Little Falls Arts and Crafts Fair.
For the past week, city crews have been sprucing up the streets, trimming trees, moving barricades, and erecting signs that will guide the army of shoppers who will descend on downtown Saturday and Sunday.
By Friday night, more than a thousand vendors will have erected their white-bonnet tents along the downtown streets, in preparation for Saturday's 9 a.m. kickoff.
Now in its 29th year, the fair has grown into one of the Upper Midwest's largest and best-run arts and crafts events, according to local organizers.
And Sunshine Magazine, a trade publication that covers the crafters industry, apparently agrees with that assessment. It ranked the Little Falls event No. 23 in the magazine's annual "best-of" survey of the nation's "traditional craft shows."
"This is the biggest outdoor show between Chicago and the West Coast," the magazine declared in a recent edition. "Perhaps Little Falls' strongest asset is the cooperation between the staff, merchants, chamber (of commerce), police and city. They all make you feel welcome and do their parts to encourage your success."
With 950 exhibitors and 65 food vendors, the Little Falls fair "effectively offers something for everyone," the magazine said.
The magazine selects about 2,000 of the country's 10,000 arts and crafts events for recognition, which means the Little Falls event is ranked in the top 1 percent of shows in the U.S.
"We are very proud of the recognition," said Elaine Westerdahl-Delaney, president and chief executive officer of the Little Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, the fair's owner. "It takes everyone working together."
She singled out the downtown merchants -- "They put up with a tremendous inconvenience," she said -- and the fair's 100 volunteers for special recognition.
The cadre of volunteers "put the show together and they are out working the show throughout the weekend," the chamber official said. "For vendors, it means their space is there and marked, and can get set up in a timely manner."
Westerdahl-Delaney said she expects about 100,000 visitors for the event, based on airborne surveys, traffic counts and other data assembled at previous fairs.
Each vendor pays $200 for the right to participate, which means the chamber raises about $200,000 to cover $145,000 in expenses to organize, promote and host the event, Westerdahl-Delaney said.
The chamber designates about $30,000 of the balance for its downtown historic lighting project, part of the downtown area's historic redevelopment master plan, she said.
The city uses its share -- about $15,000 in license fees -- for other downtown improvement projects, she said. The chamber employs a private security firm to assist the police department with traffic control.
Westerdahl-Delaney said the fair has a greater economic impact on the area than any other Little Falls attraction each year.
"It's hard to evaluate -- every dollar spent by a visitor generates about a $7 in economic activity in the area -- but the hotels and restaurants and gas stations are doing a gang-buster business over the weekend," she said. "And the shops that fit into the craft fair -- the gift shops, the jewelry stores -- also do very well."
Founded in 1972 as a promotional event for a local hobby store, the fair was taken over by the chamber in 1975.
In recent years the chamber has limited the number of arts and crafts vendors to 950, most of whom return year after year. About 150 exhibitors this year are new to the event, Westerdahl-Delaney said.
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