INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Visitors poured into the Indiana State Fair on opening day Friday, signaling they were ready to move on from last summer's deadly stage collapse and to re-embrace the popular annual event after its most trying year.
The strong early attendance was a good sign for fair officials who hope this year's event, which celebrates dairy cows, is one of emotional and economic healing. The fair saw revenue and attendance plummet last year after high winds knocked stage rigging onto a crowd of fans awaiting a concert by country duo Sugarland, and many have questioned whether the event often likened to a family reunion would ever be the same.
Fairgoers Friday seemed to have shrugged off any lingering safety concerns as they crowded around stands peddling elephant ears, corndogs and deep-fried bubblegum.
Ashley Gregory, 21, of Danville, Ind., who was in the grandstand at last year's Sugarland concert but wasn't injured, said the fair "feels different" this year but that she couldn't stay away.
"I love the state fair. I'll always come back to the support the fair," said Gregory, who paused to reflect by a plaque honoring the seven people killed in the collapse.
The collapse led to months of investigations and lawsuits amid questions about why the show wasn't canceled or postponed. Fair officials made big changes to their safety procedures for this year's event and changed the organization's management structure. Lawmakers passed a bill requiring state inspections of such temporary structures.
"It's probably a good eye-opener for everyone, what happened last year," said Paul Hunt, 39, of Avon, Ind., who arrived early with his wife, Courtney, to watch their daughter perform in the morning band competition.
Even so, fairgoers will feel the impact of last year's collapse.
Ticket prices are up and a new parking fee has been implemented as officials try to recover from a steep drop in revenue after the collapse, which forced the fair to cancel several big concerts and close for a day. Attendance was down 8 percent from 2010, and the fair's overall revenue fell from $11.9 million in 2010 to $8.38 million in 2011.
This year's headline concerts, which include shows from Barry Manilow, Train and Blake Shelton, have been moved to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis. That takes people — and the money they'd spend at the fair — off the fairgrounds for events that typically are big draws.
Fair organizers hope to offset that impact by increasing shows on a permanent free stage, where acts like REO Speedwagon and MC Hammer will perform. The grandstand will offer more thrill-based entertainment, like motorcycle races, tractor pulls and monster truck rallies.
"This is the most programmed that we've ever been," fair spokesman Andy Klotz said.
The fair also is promoting options for discounted tickets and is offering concertgoers who attend the downtown shows free admission on any day of the 17-day fair.
"We believe this fair will be about healing," said Fair Commission Executive Director Cindy Hoye.
While she says the fair must move on and get back to being a place where people go to celebrate Indiana tradition, Hoye noted it's important to pay respects to the victims of the collapse.
A moment of silence is planned for 8:46 p.m. Aug. 13, the anniversary of the collapse. Amusement rides, games and concession stands will come to a halt, perhaps for as long as five minutes.
Lindsey Lewis, 21, a Purdue University student from Greenfield who was at the grandstand with a friend the night of the collapse but left as storm clouds approached, said many people came together to grieve for the victims last year even if they didn't know them.
"I think that's what this year is all about — coming together," she said.
Associated Press writer Tom LoBianco contributed to this story.
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