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MN state fair stage vendor faces charges

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota State Fair has standards to keep stages as safe as possible for concertgoers and performers, fair officials said Monday, but acknowledged the company that erects its temporary stages faces charges in Canada for a fatal stage collapse during a storm two years ago.

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Renee Pearson, deputy general manager for entertainment and marketing, said two of the nine stages on the Minnesota fairgrounds are temporary structures like the one that collapsed Saturday night at the Indiana State Fair, killing five people before a concert by the country duo Sugarland. One is the largest venue at the fairgrounds, the 13,000-seat Grandstand. Most of the rest are permanent stages.

Staging and lighting company Premier Global Production, of Nashville, Tenn., oversees local union stagehands who set up the temporary stages according to written standards, she said.

Premier Global Production's Canadian subsidiary was one of three companies charged in Canada late last month after a stage collapse during a fierce storm killed a woman attending the 2009 Big Valley Jamboree annual country music festival near Camrose, Alberta, and injured an additional 75 people. Most of the 30-plus charges against the three companies related to failing to ensure the health and safety of workers, but Premier faces two additional counts of failing to ensure that stage equipment and rigging could withstand any stresses it might face due to inclement weather.

"We knew about it when it happened," Pearson said of the accident in Canada. "That was another ... fluke weather incident."

Pearson said Minnesota fair officials still have confidence in Premier, which has been the fair's stage vendor since 2003. She said the company has always looked for ways to improve safety.

Premier has taken steps since then to improve the safety of its stages, she added. "I know they hired an engineer to come up with additional policies and procedures for their stage structures," she said. Premier's supervisors also remain on site throughout the fair to inspect and monitor the structures, Pearson said.

"They even stay overnight on the grounds," she said.

Premier's chief financial officer, Kevin Blevins, said the company isn't commenting on the Canadian charges because they're still before the courts. But he supplied a report showing the Alberta government certified that the company's stages passed inspection last month ahead of the 2011 Big Valley Jamboree. He said they passed last year too.

And he said Premier strongly believes in the safety and integrity of its stages and that the company has not had similar problems elsewhere.

"We do dozens of festivals each and every summer without incident. But we do have many years of experience with the guys leading our crews and they take weather very, very seriously. They have, we have and will continue to ... shut down shows if they think our people or anybody on the site is in danger," Blevins said.

Premier was not involved with the stage that collapsed the Indiana State Fair and has no comment on what happened there except to express sympathy to the victims, he said.

Pearson said she believes the steps Premier has taken are adequate to ensure safety for Minnesota fairgoers and performers.

Minnesota State Fair officials also monitor the weather closely and work with a local meteorologist, Dave Dahl of KSTP-TV, who warns them of any potential dangers, she said. New for this year, she said, fair officials will also get localized email alerts on their cellphones from WeatherSentry, a service of specialized weather information provider Telvent DTN. She said that was already in place before the Indiana accident.

Specific buildings are designated as storm shelters on fairgrounds maps and officials have a detailed evacuation plan for getting people into them if severe weather strikes, she said.

"We have had severe weather here in the past. The one thing we can't control is the weather," Pearson said.

The Minnesota State Fair opens Aug. 25 and runs through Labor Day. Highlights of the Grandstand lineup include Reba McEntire with Ronnie Dunn, Toby Keith, Steely Dan, Train with Maroon 5, Weezer, Marc Anthony and "A Prairie Home Companion" with Garrison Keillor.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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