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N.C. State Fair begins today

There are very few events in North Carolina, let alone the world, that feature both a tractor pull and a wine-making competition. But the North Carolina State Fair, which Gov. Mike Easley officially opens today at 11:30 a.m., will offer these opportunities and many more for the next 10 days to those willing to pay the $6 to brave the crowded fairgrounds.

 This year marks the 150th anniversary of the state fair, "the biggest Southern agricultural show east of Texas," according to the Historical Directory of American Agricultural Fairs. Agriculture has always been a part of the fair's history--it was first created by the N.C. Agricultural Society as a way to introduce farmers to new crop and livestock techniques. But through the years, the fair has expanded to feature more than just prize plants and animals.

 "This year's line-up truly offers something for everyone," said Britt Cobb, North Carolina's Interim Agriculture Commissioner. "Whether you like to stroll through the buildings looking at exhibits and commercial offerings or prefer to be turned upside down on the midway rides, try your luck at games or eat your way through the grounds, you will find plenty to do at the North Carolina State Fair." In past years, the fair's average attendance through its 19-day run has been about 700,000 people. Attendance usually peaks on the Saturday before the fair closes--120,000 in 2002.

 Although the average fair attendee may come for the rides, the fair competitions draw about 10,000 exhibitors with the promise of cash prizes for everything from LEGO structures to enormous pigs to decorated gourds.

 "This year we are awarding more than $521,379 in premiums to winners of Fair competitions," said Wesley Wyatt, the state fair manager. "With more categories and age divisions, many more people have a chance to submit something and win a prize."

 But this year's state fair will be remarkable for other reasons as well. Meg Scott Phipps resigned as agriculture commissioner in June amidst charges of handing out contracts to fair vendors in return for money. In addition, Phipps accepted illegal contributions from last year's midway operator, Amusements of America, to fund her campaign for the commissioner position. Cobb, her replacement, immediately dropped Amusements of America and set up a public bid process to attract a new operator.

 The bid was won by Strates Shows, which had run the midway for 53 years before Amusements of America replaced them for last year's fair. There is no guarantee that the company will receive the contract again next year, however, so the pressure is on them to put on a particularly spectacular fair.

 "The eyes of this industry will be focused on Raleigh this year," George Weston, general manager for Strates, told the News and Observer of Raleigh. "We're going to kick it up a notch."

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