At noon Wednesday, only five people were riding the Ferris wheel. You could have Rollerbladed down the middle of the midway.
Not a soul lined up to whack a mole, and the vendor selling tickets to see the world's smallest woman was dozing in his chair.
It doesn't take the seasoned eye of a craft judge to determine that things are a mite slow at the N.C. State Fair this year.
N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler cites cold weather as the culprit. Vendors and fairgoers put the blame squarely on a slumping economy. Longtime vendors say business is down this year between 20 percent and 50 percent. And visitors arrive with smaller wads of bills.
“I brought $50, and we usually spend a couple hundred,” said Raquel Martin, a Raleigh mother of three who was at the fairgrounds Wednesday. “My teenagers both have jobs, so they're spending their own money.”
Through Tuesday, 376,564 people had passed through the fair's gates so far this year. That's almost 10,000 fewer than the same period last year – and this year's figure includes an extra half day the fair was open last Thursday. (Wednesday's figures weren't available at press time.)
At the fair's outset Thursday, Troxler aimed for 1 million visitors this year – a goal that appears out of reach.
The fair did set a record for Tuesday attendance this year with 71,199. And organizers are hoping for a surge today, when admission is free for those who donate four cans of food to fight hunger.
But at the Amran Shriner's food tent, sales are off about 30 percent.
Next door, the staff at Tucker's food tent reported that their sausage sandwich business was down 37 percent Saturday alone.
“People are afraid,” said Melinda Forbes, whose family has worked the fair for more than 50 years. “They're trying to save what they've got. We notice people shopping around for food.”
Normally, she added, the parking lot at the motel where the family stays is full of out-of-town fair customers. But this year, the family can park right outside their room door.
Funnel cake sales are down 20 percent at Wayne Pendergrass' window.
In a three-hour period Wednesday, Rockey Robinson said he took maybe 35 tickets to see the amazing snake woman, despite the 50 cent admission for children under 10.
You could still find a full crowd on the Twister, which whips riders sideways and dangles them upside-down. But that's a ride for thrill-seekers and a safe bet even in a down economy. More sedate rides such as the Ferris wheel were largely empty.
Fewer games played
Games of chance also are taking a huge hit. One carny at a basketball toss said his sales are down 40 percent.
Down the midway, Michael Upperman criticized fair staff for setting prices too high and prizes too small, without any room for bargaining.
He likes to adjust prices and let kids try to bust balloons with three darts for $5, or seven darts for $10. But he is obligated to charge $2 a dart. Business, he said, is down by half at least.
“Here's what you get for $2 – a pumpkin!” he said, holding up a stuffed gourd the size of an apple. “I've played fairs all the way from California to the East Coast, and this is the worst. It's a good fair, but the rules are outrageous. No slack, baby. No slack.”
Fair veterans, from Commissioner Troxler to Pendergrass the funnel cake vendor, pointed out that last year's crowd set an all-time record.
“It ain't going to be a record every year,” Pendergrass said. “You take what you can get and be thankful.”
Troxler still expects to hit that 1 million figure, too – just maybe not before this year's fair ends Sunday.
“Hoping for a million is a long-term goal I've stated over and over,” he said. “With the people moving into North Carolina who have never been to the fair, and the entertainment value we have, it's going to happen.”
Hope, like the fried pickle blimp hovering over Dorton Arena on Wednesday, springs eternal.