The N.C. State Fair ended its 11-day run Sunday with great weather and attendance likely to break 900,000 for the fifth straight year.
As of Sunday night, more than 832,000 fairgoers had streamed onto the fairgrounds to eat funnel cakes, ride roller coasters and watch livestock shows. Final attendance numbers will not be available until Monday morning, when organizers find out how this year’s fair compares with the record set in 2010 of 1.09 million visitors.
Without any rain during the fair, state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler was a little disappointed with this year’s attendance. It started strong with numbers higher than last year, dipped during the week and rebounded again on the last weekend.
“I’m a little perplexed with why we didn’t have bigger attendance,” Troxler said Sunday evening.
Otherwise, Troxler was pleased with this year’s fair: “I judge the fair by the comments I get and the looks I see on people’s faces – it was absolutely wonderful.”
State fair officials were breathing a tad easier this year that the fair came off without a major incident. Last year, five people were injured after the Vortex ride was allegedly tampered with. Two fair workers face felony assault charges and a federal lawsuit is pending.
Three years ago, more than two dozen fairgoers got sick from exposure to E. coli – the second outbreak since 2004. As a result, fair officials put more distance between food vendors and where livestock is housed and moved within the fair.
“The fair is supposed to be about coming out and having fun and making memories,” said fair spokesman Brian Long. “We’ve had a good fair from that standpoint.”
Before this year’s fair, gun rights advocates made headlines by filing a legal challenge to the ban on concealed weapons at the fair. A Wake County Superior Court judge sided with Troxler, ruling a new state law that allows concealed weapons into venues that charge admission did not lift the fair’s longtime weapons ban.
As a result, Long said fair officials expanded use of metal detectors at the gates. While a few fairgoers were told to return weapons to their cars, as has happened in previous years, Long said there were no issues with those fairgoers whose weapons were turned away.
By Sunday, fairgoers were eager to get in one last taste of deep-fried candy bars, a chance to win a toddler-sized stuffed animal or a spin on the Ferris wheel.
Visitors Crystal Moore, 35, of North Raleigh, and her parents, Phil and Linda Moore of Dunn, have been coming to the fair for more than 30 years. They have one main objective, Crystal Moore explained: “Eat, and then we look at everything.”
The family was enjoying a meal at Big Al’s BBQ & Catering, which took over the spot previously occupied by the N.C. Pork Council’s Pork Chop Shop. It was the first year the North Raleigh restaurant and catering operation had sold food at the fair, and owner Al Carter was pleased with sales that averaged 1,500 to 2,000 meals a day.
“We’re here for life now,” Carter said.
Carter had spent the nights at the fair, dozing in a sleeping bag on a reclining chair inside the restaurant. His employees slept inside an recreational vehicle elsewhere on the fairgrounds. Asked if he was ready to return to his own bed, Carter joked: “I’ve gotten used to that chair by now.”
One vendor ready to end the fair season was Doris Drury, who has been selling mini doughnuts at the N.C. State Fair for 34 years. Drury operates the doughnut stand near the Exposition Center with her husband, Terry Kochniarczyk. She’s been out on the road since early July. By Tuesday, she hopes to be home in Ormond Beach, Fla.
“I’m ready to sleep in my own bed and see my kitty cats,” Drury said.
House of Swank owner John Pugh was pleased with his first fair appearance, selling North Carolina-themed T-shirts. Pugh, of Raleigh, said they weren’t really sure what would sell well at the fair, but two shirts were big sellers: one emblazoned with the words, “Deep Fried,” and another showing an outline of North Carolina divided in two, the eastern half stamped with “vinegar” and the western half marked with “tomato.” Five times during the fair, Pugh said he had to print more T-shirts.
“We met a lot of people from all over the state who didn’t know us,” Pugh said. “That kind of exposure is amazing. We’re coming back next year.”