INDIANAPOLIS – Grief over a deadly stage collapse gave way to excitement over animal exhibits and deep-fried bubblegum Friday as thousands of people poured into an Indiana State Fair trying to bounce back from its most trying year.
Visitors bustled from rides to food stands, with only a few pausing to read the seven names inscribed on a plaque that serves as a memorial to those killed last August while waiting for the country duo Sugarland to perform.
The strong early attendance was a good sign for fair officials who hope this year's event will help heal emotions and put the fair back on sound financial footing. Revenue and attendance plummeted last year after the stage collapse, and many questioned whether the event often likened to a family reunion would ever be the same.
Deanna Phipps, 35, of Kokomo, Ind., went to the fair with her husband, Les, to watch their 14-year-old daughter march in the Kokomo High School color guard. She stopped at the memorial to the victims but clearly was ready to move on.
"I think they did the best they could," Phipps said of fair officials. "You would never think that (such an accident) would happen."
The Aug. 31, 2011, collapse occurred when high winds sent stage rigging plunging onto fans awaiting the Sugarland concert. The deaths and dozens of injuries sparked 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 and changed the organization's management structure. Lawmakers passed a bill requiring state inspections of such temporary structures.
Some fair visitors, however, said concertgoers shouldn't have counted on officials to tell them when it wasn't safe to stay.
"People just need to use common sense," said Verlena Jones, 82, of Monticello, Ind., who came to the fair with her husband John, 76. "If it looks like it's going to storm, get the heck out of there."
But even fairgoers focused on moving forward 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 make up the losses from last year, when they had 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 performances by Barry Manilow, Train and Blake Shelton, have been moved to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis. That means huge crowds of people -- and the money they'd typically spend at the fair -- may never make it to the fairgrounds.
Fair organizers hope to offset that impact by promoting discounted tickets and offering concertgoers who attend the downtown shows free admission on any day of the 17-day fair.
Officials also are increasing the number of free shows on a permanent 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.
Cindy Hoye, executive director of the Indiana State Fair Commission, described this year's even as one of "healing," but she also said the victims of the collapse won't be forgotten.
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.
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 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 the plaque honoring those killed.