Rainy last day derails Arkansas State Fair attendance record

Posted: October 24, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

Nick Jonck works Monday morning tearing down the Crazy Mouse roller coaster at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds in Little Rock. The fair ended Sunday night.

The Arkansas State Fair posted the second-highest attendance in its 78-year history thanks to a few new features and desirable weather, organizers said Monday.

When the midway powered down for the final time Sunday evening, 451,130 people had attended the festival, up 428 from last year.

In addition to the traditional fare (this year's dietary choices ranged from corn dogs to armadillo eggs), the State Fair hired a new carnival operator. North American Midway Entertainment of Farmland, Ind., brought 61 rides, six more than last year.

The fair, which had been a 10-day event beginning on a Friday since 1969, also added an 11th day to its schedule, opening Thursday, Oct. 12 and running through Sunday.

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Photos by John Sykes Jr.

On Monday, fair organizers were still busy closing the books on this year's event, but their early impressions were positive.

"Overall it was a very, very good fair," said Ralph Eubanks, a fair spokesman. "Carnival was great. Weather was great."

Inclement weather kept its distance for the majority of the fair, although rain early Sunday likely kept some families away on the final day, causing attendance projections to fall short, said Ralph Shoptaw, fair president and general manager. Still, the fair registered one of its four busiest weeks over the final seven days.

One of the biggest hits among fairgoers was the new carnival vendor, particularly its workers, organizers said. North American Midway Entertainment, which participates in about 145 events each year attended by 15 million people, brought 17 rides that had never been to the Natural State before.

Eubanks said fair staff received numerous compliments about the company's employees.

"We got so much positive feedback about [North American Midway Entertainment]," he said. "Their staff was all well-behaved, high-quality ride operators."

The company has strict rules for employees' uniforms, appearance and behavior, and it showed, Shoptaw said. This year's fair was the first in a five-year contract with North American Midway Entertainment.

At the gates, visitors for the first time walked through metal detectors rather than stopping to be wanded by a security guard, which officials said unclogged entry points and gave revelers peace of mind.

"Not only that, I think it was a deterrent for people wanting bring something they shouldn't inside," Eubanks said. "I think that added to the safety, in addition to the law enforcement officers already out there."

Lt. Cody Burk, a spokesman for the Pulaski County sheriff's office, said the agency made no arrests at the fair and had about 10 to 15 deputies per day at the event.

Lt. Michael Ford, a Little Rock police spokesman, said it was a quiet fair and the department tried to use its large officer presence to deter crime. The city footed the bill for any overtime that accrued from the officers working the fair, Ford said.

Little Rock police logged 13 incident reports at the at the fairgrounds from Oct. 12 to Sunday, according to the department. The reports included incidents of petty theft, disturbances between fairgoers and one report of forgery.

Two arrests were made from an incident at the fairgrounds Saturday night, according to Ford. According to the report, police intervened after seeing a 15-year-old boy punch a 16-year-old boy in the face.

As police escorted the 15-year-old to the front exit gate, the teenager became irate and struggled as they started to make their way through the crowd. According to police, the teenager struggled harder and almost broke away from an officer's grip as they got closer to the front gate.

According to the report, the teenager threatened to hurt the officer as he tried to break away from the officer's grip. In the report, the officer said he released the teenager and then pulled him to the ground.

The officer went to the ground to put the teenager in handcuffs and an 18-year-old woman, who said she was the sister of the 15-year-old, jumped on the officer's back. Police removed the woman and put her in handcuffs, the report said.

According to the report, the 15-year-old boy was charged with third-degree battery, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, terroristic threatening and possession of an instrument of crime. Ford said the 18-year-old woman was also arrested in the incident.

Fair organizers were disappointed with turnout on opening night. The fair kicked off with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 4 p.m. on Oct. 12, but the early opening attracted few. It may take a year or two before the day-early start date takes hold, and fair officials are planning more promotions for opening day in 2018, Shoptaw said.

Keeping with recent trends, the number of animals at the Livestock Show continued to climb. Approximately 1,500 hogs were nominated for the Market Hog show, several hundred more than a year ago, Shoptaw said. There were 6,500 total junior livestock entries.

In the coming weeks, organizers will meet to discuss this year's fair.

"We'll discuss what worked, what went right, what didn't work and talk about improvements," Eubanks said.

Then, he said, it's time to plan the 2018 Arkansas State Fair.

Fairgoers walk the midway Saturday at the Arkansas State Fair in Little Rock. The fair’s 10-day run, which ended Sunday, had an attendance of 451,130.

Metro on 10/24/2017