RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The 154th North Carolina State Fair kicked off at noon Thursday with organizers feeling confident in a turnout uptick following a decline in 2021.
"We really think this year people are ready for the fair. Usually our attendance is right around a million, and we're expecting strong numbers this year. One of the indicators for us that attendance might be strong is our advance ticket sale program -- and that has been above average," said Heather Overton, the Assistant Director at the NC State Fair Press Office.
The fair returned last year for the first time since 2019, after it was cancelled due to COVID-19 in 2020. The first night attendance in 2021 was down by more than 15,000, a drop of about 37%, hitting its lowest mark since 1994. Overall fair attendance dropped to 824,328, down by more than 100,000 people from 2019, and a low-mark since 2008.
To combat that, organizers have brought in new attractions, including a magician and hypnotist, as well as 40 more food options. They're also getting a big help with scheduling, as neither the Carolina Hurricanes or NC State Football have home games during the stretch; Duke hosts UNC Saturday, though the following week the Tar Heels are off and Duke travels to Miami. In 2021, the Hurricanes home opener coincided with the fair's opening day.
"We do have two new parking lots, which we hope will maybe alleviate some of the parking (challenges) when there are multiple events in this area," Overton said.
Entry prices have remained flat, with tickets and wristbands available at a discount if purchased online Thursday. Efforts to draw in more crowds are appreciated by vendors, many of whom have faced rising costs.
"We've been out here 32 years. So I'm excited. Even though the food expenses have gone up, it's another blessing. Thank God we're out here this year," McBride's Concessions manager Kim Pettie said.
"Everything - the buns, the lobster, the crab, the shrimp, you name it, everything went up. So of course we had to raise our prices. But I will say, basically we didn't raise them until this year, so we survived, made a little less, but that's life," said Melinda Russell, co-owner of Lobster Dogs Raleigh.
Russell said the price of a case of lobster increased by 33%, but business from the fair in 2021 helped the company stay afloat.
"It's a good place to come to make extra money, because you do I don't know how many events that you'd make in one or two weeks here at the fair," Russell said.
The impact for businesses extends far past when the fair wraps up, as eateries getting their name out in front of so many customers is a very power marketing tool.
"We get other small towns that call for events, and we've got events we go to once a month, and it really has helped in that direction," Russell said.
Inflation has also been a problem for the agriculture industry.
"There's a lot of energy that's involved. It takes a lot of diesel fuel to run a big tractor," The Dairy Alliance representative Carlyle Teague said.
Despite that, they didn't raise their prices, still selling milk for $1, in part due to logistics. Since they only accept cash, handling change at so much volume isn't feasible.
Instead, The Dairy Alliance hopes the bounceback in attendance can help offset the extra expenses they're incurring.
"I think the attendance is going to be really good this year," Pettie said.
The McMillan family was one of the first families to make it to the fair Thursday.
"We did it last year after the lockdowns, and felt like that was a good spot. And wanted to show support and come on out from the get-go," said Jodie McMillan about coming on the first day.
"We enjoy the farm area, as well as all the rides, and the food," Verdelle McMillan said.
The youngest of the group, 5-year-old Makayla, was more focused on playing games that the economic complexities of the event.
"I just want to get one of those prizes from the booths," she said.