Apparently, the masses finally got the memo: Get out to the fairgrounds. After five days of lagging attendance at the State Fair this week, business is picking up in the waning days.
The crowds were out Friday, funneling among the funnel cake booths, queuing up for rides, considering their best strategy for toppling stacked beer cans.
"I like it," said TyNia Brandon, a 13-year-old from Charlotte on her first trip to the fair. "I like all the options, all the food options."
But many people opted out. Relatively slow days early in the fair's 10-day run mean attendance is still running below last year's.
Through Thursday, 512,333 had visited the fair in its first seven days. That is above the five-year average but is a dip from this time last year, when attendance was at 545,830.
The smaller crowds are having an impact on those who make their money off all those fairgoers.
Blame gas prices, vendors say. Blame economic insecurity, memories of last year's E. coli illnesses caught at the petting zoo and reports last week about carnival rides that didn't pass state inspections.
"We've noticed that people are in a more depressed mood, that enthusiasm is down," said Jean Brannan, leaning on a pile of folded sweat shirts at her embroidery booth in the Commercial Building. Business this week is down 30 percent for her and her husband, Clyde, who count the fair as their most important week of the year.
Clyde Brannan blamed bad press for pushing visitors away. He said news about the rides and gas prices created too much negativity. "If you put out that it's a good fair, come on out, then people will come out," he said.
A few feet away, Mostafa A. Sadek was trying to push Egyptian souvenirs at his booth and attributed slow business to post-Hurricane Katrina economic jitters. The Charlotte resident did booming business at the Kentucky state fair this year -- in August, before the hurricane.
He has taken to cutting prices. A notebook-size sheet of papyrus adorned with an Egyptian king goes for a dollar, down from five.
"I just need to bring in something," Sadek said.
Far from the noise and scents of the fair this week, people had a variety of reasons for not making it there.
At Pullen Park in Raleigh, David Doncaster, 36, of Garner and his 3-year-old son, Jack, found cheaper rides one afternoon this week. Standing in line outside the kiddie boats, Doncaster said the pair had done the boats, the train and the carousel -- twice -- for less than $10.
Lisa Daniels, 39, a waitress at Short's Grill in Selma, kept an eye on a frying burger one afternoon this week and said she just couldn't afford the fair. Instead, she is saving for Christmas and figuring that her children will understand.
"Because of the way gas prices have gone up and stuff, you got to save all you've got," she said.
At an antiques shop up the street, employee Pat Hoyle adjusted old photos along a wall and said she seemed too busy this year.
"Isn't that awful?" asked Hoyle, 63. "You know what, if it was a priority, we'd be there. We've done it for 60 years."
And the weather has been beautiful, Hoyle said as she gazed out the shop window.
But forecasts call for showers today and lower temperatures through the weekend. The fair runs through midnight Sunday.
State Fair officials keep close track of attendance because gate receipts are used to calculate how much the carnival operator must pay the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In past years, that amount has run about $4.2 million, said a fair spokesman, Brian Long.
State Fair Manager Wesley Wyatt said Friday that he thought fair attendance was looking good.
"It's over our historic average," he said. "It's been steady."
And out on the grounds, the fairgoers kept coming.
Wes and Nikki Dyke of Raleigh came out for the sinful food and the Third Day concert Friday night.
"It's kind of overwhelming," he said. "There's a lot going on -- tons of lights and colors and everything."
But for him the best part might have been the least flashy: "I highly recommend the big baked potato."
Staff writer Barbara Barrett can be reached at 829-4870 or firstname.lastname@example.org.