The Comeback of the North Carolina State Fair

By Emily Murrill (2022)
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To most North Carolinians, the North Carolina State Fair is a rite of passage and source of state pride that has been around longer than they or their great-grandparents can remember. Founded in 1853 and hosted annually in Raleigh, the fair and agricultural exposition attracts thousands of visitors each year. In 2022, the fair boasted record-breaking numbers of over 960,000 visitors between October 13th and 23rd––the highest turnout since 2017. 

 

Back in 1853, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services wanted to find a fun way to promote North Carolina’s local farmers and their produce. They also wanted to create an event that would attract people from all across the state and encourage those from different walks of life to meet and interact. The N.C. State Fair has achieved both of those goals and more, resulting in almost 200 years of successful operation. 

 

Today, the fair has come a long way from its humble beginnings. While there is still a display of produce like there was in the very first fair, there are now hundreds of activities and stalls to attract foot traffic. This year hosted five new rides, a folk festival, grandstand shows, games, outdoor music, competitions, countless food stalls, and more. 

 

There is an endless array of activities and eats to explore, no matter how many times you’ve gone before. “I’ve gone in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2021,” said Brandon Talton, an Elon University student and North Carolina native. When asked about his favorite attraction at the fair over the years, he said that he will always stop to see the chicken and pig races. 

 

    

While the N.C. State Fair has hosted millions of visitors since 1853, the coronavirus pandemic almost pushed it out of business. The fair was canceled in 2020 for obvious reasons, and the 2021 fair had a much lower visitor turnout rate. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services was fearful of what the turnout in 2022 would look like and whether the pandemic had changed the future of the fair forever. 

 

However, this year’s record-breaking turnout leaves both officials and visitors feeling relieved that the fair is here to stay. With the pandemic and lockdown (hopefully) in the past, the North Carolina State Fair can go back to carrying out its mission of bringing people together.

 

“Worries over the coronavirus are at an end for North Carolina,” said Talton. “It’s a thing that most places don’t consider anymore, so I think that if the fair goes back to operating the way it did before Covid, then it’ll be alright.”

City of Raleigh Economic Development & Innovation

Michaela Bramwell (2020)

Raleigh is the capital of the great state of North Carolina, a “big city with a small-town feel,” as some might say. The city is bustling with diverse people and lively businesses, and growth opportunities. Growing up in Cary, my family and I held the tradition of taking night drives to downtown Raleigh for Saturday night dinners. I remember staring out of the backseat car window at the giant office buildings. The city reminds me of time with my family and is where I walked across the stage to graduate high school and stepped into true adulthood. 

I rarely get to visit nowadays, but the city remains its iconic self, with increasing innovations and economic growth. According to NCDemography.com, Raleigh is one of the fastest-growing large metros in the country. The median household income is a little over $69,000 and the per capita income is at $38,494, according to the City Profile. 

I was able to speak with Nia Blaze, a communications intern with the city of Raleigh Economic Development and Innovation Team about Raleigh’s economic situation before the COVID pandemic, where she described it as “robust and vibrant.” The biggest industries that contribute to Raleigh’s economy include technology, medical fields, hospitality, manufacturing, education, and universities. 

“All these industries develop and maintain a healthy economy, and having a mix makes us more resilient. In a recession, you need a mix of businesses, so if one sector is affected the others can carry on the economy,” says Nia. 

 Even during the pandemic, surprisingly, there has been an increase in activity with bigger North Eastern and Western companies looking to come to Raleigh. Pendo and Bandwidth are two Raleigh grown technology businesses and the latter has seen growth during the pandemic. Also, Amazon and other delivery services have been on the rise, HR jobs, businesses making PPE, IT businesses hardware stores, and architecture. 

Unfortunately, Raleigh has seen a lull in the tourism and travel industries, as well as the businesses that go along with those including hotels and other hospitality businesses this year. This, of course, is not the case for other cities across North Carolina, but it seems that people are traveling to less populated cities to escape the craziness. 

Income inequality also continues to worsen due to closings, health issues, and business restrictions and impacts children as well who will be harmed by the lack of resources. 

So what has the Economic Development and Innovation team done to help build back Raleigh? The team has partnered with Carolina Small Business, a team that helps entrepreneurs create the business of their dreams, to create the Raleigh Small Business Relief Fund to help small businesses repurpose and find innovative ways to stay afloat. 

“Businesses were able to afford supplies and furniture needed for curbside pick-up and outdoor dining,” says Nia. 

The environment of Raleigh has been positively impacted due to the pandemic, including lowered smog levels and less turbid water bodies, but the overall economic hardships may slow down the progress in building sustainable technologies. 

The City of Raleigh Office of Sustainability believes, “It is likely that both the positive and negative effects of this global pandemic will be something we continue to learn about for a long time to come.” 

Raleigh’s economy is not the only one that has been impacted by this pandemic, but what sets it apart according to Nia is “Our ability to work together with the chambers of commerce, alliance partners, and community, which allows us to get solutions more quickly than other cities.” She believes energy, innovation, collaboration, and community are at the heart of the city. 

We are not perfect but, “out of all the imperfect places, this is my favorite imperfect place,” says Nia.

Raleigh Roots

Caroline Zybala (2014)

While at the International Festival in Raleigh, NC, our group kept seeing this man, wearing some traditional ethnic attire and a hat with a large feather, walking around the convention center. We finally decided to approach him and figure out his story. We figured he would be a good character to interview for our project. Quickly, we discovered that this individual was a wealth of information about Highway 64 and the evolution of North Carolina over the years. Alvin M. Fountain, 2nd, (“How southern can I be?”), lives in Raleigh, North Carolina and grew up with Highway 64 being an important travel route.

“We used Highway 64 to get to the beach. I mean, it goes to both the beach and the mountains, but the trip to the beach is only two hours, compared to the four hours to the mountains.” But travel was not the only use of this road—Fountain also used the road to travel south to Charlotte on occasion. Looking around at the bustling crowd, he lowered his voice and said, “I like it because it is quieter. Until you hit the traffic!”

We all laughed, and then we changed topics to figure out what had prompted the outfit. “I am actually here with the Polish group. I am the Honorary Consul of the Republic of Poland for North Carolina. But, I am not Polish. I am your typical southern, white, Anglo-Saxton Protestant. But I studied German in high school and got really interested in the cultures over there.” Referring to his hat, he explained it was created by local, elderly Polish-American ladies, who bought the materials themselves. “This is a traditional Polish hat. They made it back in 1986 for the opening for the International Festival. I was there for that. I’ve actually been to the festival every year. Well, in 2010, I did miss the festival proper, but I helped set it up, so I count it. My wife had her 50th high school reunion.”

At this point in the conversation, Alvin tried to think of other things to tell us about Highway 64 and North Carolina history. He explained how his family had been in North Carolina for over 300 years, and he could remember back to 1949, when North Carolina was very different. “There were almost no Catholics in North Carolina when I was growing up. When Kennedy was running for president, they were looking at the breakdown of Catholics in each of the states. North Carolina actually had the smallest percentage. But now, things have really changed. Right by Siler City, there is a giant Catholic church that looks like it could be right out of Mexico.”

When prompted to explain why this changed happened, Alvin responded, “Culturally, the state of North Carolina has changed greatly. When I was growing up, everyone was a WASP.” He quickly explained the acronym (White Anglo-Saxton Protestant) because we all must have shown some real confusion in our expressions. “The other group of people was what I like to call BAAP—Black African American Protestant.”

“But now, we have so many other people in the state, like people in the Polish club. The Research Triangle Park is really influenced this change. When companies moved down here, it would really shake up the whole Triangle. A big one was IBM, which brought people from the upper Midwest and upstate New York. Overall, Raleigh has really grown.”

We asked him for his final thoughts on Highway 64 in regards to his life, and he thought for a moment. Squinting his eyes, he said, “64 is really a sort of central road. It can be a connecting route if you want to make your trip worthwhile and get to point A to point B. The road can take you east to the zoo, and to Rocky Mount—that is where my mother grew up. Or you can head west, and the road splits at Zebulon. There are parts when it turns into single lanes, and the traffic really slows down. Then you reach the coast and Kill Devil Hills.”

After talking briefly about the project we were completing, we were able to takea picture with Alvin. I mean, it’s not everyday you get to meet a WASP, Polish Honorary Consul!

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