RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina State Fair opened in the rain Friday, but with more rides, a larger midway and the third carnival operator in three years for a 10-day run.
The State Fair is the nation's largest 10-day agricultural fair, generating millions of dollars, and last year it drew 834,000 people.
The state made more than $4.6 million from the fair last year, and if paid attendance levels stay steady this year, it will take in more than $4.1 million -- nearly twice as much as it got two years ago, when the State Fair became central in a government scandal.
Former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps went to prison for extorting money from potential carnival companies as a result of that scandal.
The state switched last year to public bidding.
Reithoffer Shows of Gibsonton, Fla., won the contract to run the fair midway with a bid of $5.815 for every paying fairgoer this year.
The money raised by the fair will be used to improve the fairgrounds, most noticeably an expanded midway for rides, games and food stands.
The state has spent $300,000 to reconfigure a third of the infield of the Sam G. Rand Grandstand and create 3 additional acres of midway space. The new paved pathways are 82 feet wide -- 16 feet wider than those in the existing midway -- which should cut down on crowding.
More than 20 of the 102 rides -- 24 more than last year -- at the fair will operate in the new space, said Wesley Wyatt, the State Fair manager. Next year, the track will be finished, nearly doubling the size of last year's midway.
The state is also spending $6.3 million on a 50,000-square-foot multipurpose building. The state Department of Agriculture has also developed some new exhibits, particularly ones that will appeal to children.
Reithoffer was one of three companies the state pre-approved on the basis of their safety records, the quality, quantity and variety of rides, and guest and support services.
Reithoffer bid to pay North Carolina about 25 cents more per paying fairgoer than the other two companies -- including Strates Shows, which ran the fair for 54 of the past 55 years.
Phipps pushed Strates aside in 2002 in favor of New Jersey's Amusements of America, which illegally gave Phipps thousands of dollars.
Amusements of America was banned from bidding for the contract this year, but will be represented at the fair this year after all. Amusements has an agreement with Reithoffer to contribute nine fair rides.