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Fair attendance down - weather or ‘wilding’?

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Published:   |   Updated: February 18, 2014 at 07:55 AM

TAMPA — The 110th Florida State Fair came to an end today in perfect weather, but with far fewer fair-goers than in years past.

Attendance through Sunday stood at roughly 341,000, and a well-attended Monday — expected to be between 40,000 to 50,000 — at best would leave the fair looking at a 10 percent deficit from 2013, fair officials said.

Fair attendance has dropped every year since 2011, when 480,000 people walked through the gates. In 2012, 457,000 came out; last year, 443,000.

Why this year’s attendance dropped is a subject of debate. Fair officials say unseasonably cool weather was the main factor; others say a well-publicized incident of teens “wilding’’ at the fair on Feb. 7 shares some of the blame.

Carrie and Randy Howland have come from Illinois to the Florida State Fair for nearly a decade, selling eats and drinks and funnel cakes from their Sweet Shoppes booth across from the alligator wrestling pit.

“This is the worst it’s been in eight years,” Randy Howland said this afternoon. “And it ain’t the weather.”

Fair officials say there’s only one reason for the drop in attendance.

“The weather,” said fair Executive Director Charles Pesano. “It always has an impact on us.”

Sunday was a big day, the biggest day of the fair. More than 60,000 people showed up, trudging through the fair from midway rides to livestock exhibitions, nearly shoulder to shoulder, he said.

The fair’s opening weekend suffered through rain, cold and more.

The first Friday, on Feb. 7, drew a collective gasp from the community. Ninety-nine people were ejected after hundreds of teens marauded through the midway. Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies say a small group of people began running wildly and soon gathered up perhaps 200 youths who ran and shoved and left some law-abiding fair-goers and bystanders sprawled in their wake.

The tradition on what is known as “Student Day,” when students off school and are admitted free, garnered more attention this year after an ejected 14-year-old boy, tried to cross Interstate 4 and was struck and killed.

Wilding at the fair made headlines and dominated social media for days, though the dip in attendance this year had nothing to do with that, said an upbeat Pesano this afternoon, as the fair was making its last grasp for attendance.

“When you go back to previous years, good years and bad years, you can see weather always is the dominant factor,” he said.

On the opening weekend, he said, “There was a lot of rain. On those two days alone, 65,000 came and that’s below average and that put us in a big hole. “

Midweek, also brought chilly temperatures and cold rain that lasted almost into the weekend.

“Until (Sunday),” he said, “we really hadn’t had a day that got us into the comfort zone.”

Monday was yet another “student day,” expected to draw youths from Manatee, Polk and Pinellas counties celebrating Presidents Day with a day off of school. It also was family day where a family of four could get in for $20.

Pesano called this year’s fair a success.

“Every year it’s a successful year,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands come out to see the animals, the shows; to ride the rides. That’s why we’re here, whether the weather impacts us or not.”

While fair officials can’t do anything about the weather, changes were made in the wake of the wilding incident.

In a statement issued today, Pesano said the fair authority would work with the sheriff’s office to address the security concerns, including limiting free entry to youths after 7 p.m.

Sheriff David Gee vowed to meet with outreach groups after the fair was over to discuss ways of reaching out to unruly teens to avoid a similar incident next year. County Commissioner Les Miller is holding a community meeting Tuesday to discuss the issue.

The problem of rampaging youth on the first Friday of the fair dates back to the 1990s or earlier, and some years are worse than others, deputies said. Last year, 56 people were ejected and two were arrested the first Friday night of the fair; in 2012 there were 48 ejections and eight arrests; and in 2011, 93 ejections and nine arrests.

Weather or wilding, some vendors say they are making less.

Thaiann Kue was in a prime spot, in the Expo Hall, smack in front of the main entrance, selling framed butterflies of all colors and kinds.

“Last year, we were in a worse location and we did better last year,” she said in front of her Butterflies To Go booth. She has noticed fewer people sweeping by her, too.

“Compared to last year, yeah, there is a drop,” said the Wasilla, Alaska, resident who travels all over with her wares. Next up: Plant City for the Florida Strawberry Festival next week.

“The strawberry festival has always been really good for us,” she said.

Outside is the Grand Dame of vendors. Sissi LaFratta has been selling sweets from her Perfection Confection booth for the past 40 years. When she started the fair was crammed in a space on the west side of North Boulevard, near the University of Tampa.

Sunday was huge for the Ruskin resident, who plans to head north over the summer to sell her candied apples as far away as Wisconsin. It looked like a steady stream of return customers would keep her from losing money.

“If you’re in the same location,” she said, “people look for you. And we’ve served four generations here.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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