For the first time in recent memory, and maybe the first time ever, the N.C. State Fair delayed its opening day because of bad weather.
The fair was set to open at 3 p.m. Thursday, but as Hurricane Michael came ashore in Florida on Wednesday as a Category 4 storm, state and local officials, working with vendors and ride operators, decided to delay the fair’s opening until Friday at 10 a.m.
Fair manager Kent Yelverton said at a news conference on the fairgrounds Wednesday afternoon that the decision was made in order to keep safe those who operate the fair and those who come to enjoy it, including some who travel from other parts of the state.
“We looked at all options,” Yelverton said. “We felt like the best decision was not to operate at all tomorrow.”
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Michael is expected to be a tropical storm by the time it reaches North Carolina, bringing several inches of rain and gusty winds before it moves out to sea on Friday.
Yelverton, who has worked at the fair for 26 years but is in his first year as manager, said he could not remember the fair ever closing for weather before. Typically, he said, opening day is the fair’s lowest day for attendance, so he hopes the delayed opening won’t have too great an effect on overall attendance. The fair is hoping to top a million visitors again this year.
While many of those who work the fair stay in area hotels or drive home at closing time each day, hundreds stay in RVs parked around the fairgrounds. If conditions are too rough for them to stay in their vehicles, Yelverton said, those people can stay inside buildings on the fairgrounds until the storm passes.
There are about 90 rides at the fair, and in high winds, some of those might have to be at least partially disassembled per manufacturers’ specifications for wind tolerances. In that case, they would have to be re-inspected once they are put back together before riders could board.
Marc Janas, spokesman for Powers Great American Midways, in its 13th year of providing the rides for the N.C. State Fair, said the company is used to dealing with bad weather. Powers was set up on the midway of the Cabarrus County Fair in Concord, near Charlotte, when Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina. The fair closed three days early, Janas said.
While the state fairgrounds will be closed to the public on Thursday, vendors, staff and others who need access will be allowed in. But most were working as fast as they could on Wednesday to get ready ahead of the storm.
“We’re making sure everything is tied down and doing some things to keep water from getting in,” said Joe Barefoot, who with his brother, Bobby, runs a concession selling foot-long hot dogs, Polish and Italian sausage and other fair food. The concession was started by their father, Charlie Barefoot, and the brothers keep it going. They’re based in Johnston County, and the state fair is the only place they set up the booth.
The brothers remember a tropical depression that came through one Sunday during the fair in 1997. The fair didn’t close, they said, but it might as well have for the number of customers they had.
“I think we made $150 that day,” Joe Barefoot said. “We sat over there and watched football.”
Nearby on Wednesday, workers continued to assemble and test rides. One crewman switched on the twinkling LED lights of the new Flying Elephants ride. Another sent an empty car whirling around the track of a roller coaster.
The band American Aquarium was scheduled to play the opening night concert at Dorton Arena, part of the all-North Carolina Homegrown Music Fest. The popular band, whose frontman B.J. Barham is from Raleigh, doesn’t return home too often, and when they do, they typically sell out.
After someone tweeted about their disappointment, American Aquarium announced on Twitter it would still play Thursday night, but a free show at The Pour House in downtown Raleigh. Doors open at 6 p.m. The show begins at 7 p.m. The Pour House is at 224 S. Blount St., Raleigh.
At the fairgrounds, Mark Boissy crammed one more stuffed plush doughnut toy into the display at his game booth. He’s from Myrtle Beach, S.C., and usually works there all year, but his season was cut short by Hurricane Florence so he came to the N.C. State Fair.
“Just trying to make a dollar,” he said.
After the storm passes, the weather is expected to be dry and much cooler. The fair will run through Oct. 21.