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With Phipps Gone, Questions Arise About State Fair's Future

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Meg Scott Phipps believes the problems that led to her resignation Friday started the day she hired a new company to run the Midway at the North Carolina State Fair.

That decision upset a lot of longtime agriculture supporters. But more importantly, it put the former Agriculture Commissioner under the microscope.

With Phipps gone, there are plenty of questions about the future of the Midway.

The N.C. State Fair is considered the people's fair -- featuring farm animals, cotton candy and wild rides. But the event also means big money for the people who operate those rides.

Last year, the contract was worth more than $3 million.

The indictments in the case revolve around illegal campaign contributions made by the carnival industry.

"These are very serious allegations that have been made," attorney general Roy Cooper said, "and I'm very limited to what I can say because our State Bureau of Investigation and my office are participating in the investigation of the commissioner."

Last year's fair was operated for the first time in decades by a new company, Amusements of America, which also was awarded this year's contract. But given Phipps' resignation and the federal indictments, the question arises as to the fair contract being tainted

"I will say that is not a question that has been presented yet to our department," Cooper said. "If that issue comes up, if anyone challenges the contract, certainly we will look into the legal aspects of it.

James A. Strates Shows, a company from Florida, held the N.C. State Fair contract for decades but lost it two years ago.

Strates Shows challenged the first contract awarded to Amusements of America, claiming the bidding process was rigged. That case was settled out of court, with Strates getting $50,000 but the Agriculture Department admitting no wrongdoing.

The owner of Strates Shows, owner Jimmy Strates, told WRAL that he plans no challenge to the contract this year. But he said he will wait for the attoney general's review.

Should a change take place, Wes Wyatt, manager of the fair, said it is not too late to switch vendors.

At this stage, said Wyatt, "we're still doing business as normal. We're still conducting our business and our activities in the best interest of North Carolina."

Whatever happens with the contract, the 150th N.C. State Fair will open its gates.

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