Fair Tries To Rejuvenate Tradition After Tragedy

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.

Photo: AP Photo
2012 Indiana State Fair visitors walk by a memorial to the seven killed in the Aug. 13, 2011 stage collapse.

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.

Most Ind. Fair Collapse Victims Accept Settlement

Most victims of a deadly stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair have agreed to accept shares of a $13.2 million settlement offer from the state and two private companies, the state attorney general’s office said Thursday.

The office said 51 of the 62 eligible claimants have accepted the settlement offer. Paperwork from additional claimants that was postmarked by Wednesday’s midnight deadline also will be accepted.

To accept the combined settlement, claimants agreed to release Mid-America Sound and James Thomas Engineering from additional liability in the Aug. 13, 2011, collapse before country duo Sugarland was to perform, killing seven and injuring dozens. The companies put up a combined $7.2 million in addition to the state’s $6 million.

“This is an expedited and reasonable settlement that puts victims first and will provide for the immediate medical and financial needs now, rather than after waging lengthy and uncertain litigation,” Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a statement.

Claimants who do not agree to clear the companies would be barred from receiving the state money as well, said Zoeller spokesman Bryan Corbin.

Carl Brizzi, an Indianapolis attorney representing the wife of Glenn Goodrich, a security guard who died in the accident, and two other victims who were injured in the collapse, said his clients decided this was the best answer for them.

“I think that, at least as the far as the victims I represent, that money is going to help stabilize their situation,” he said. Brizzi noted that the two companies were chipping in 90 to 95 percent of what their insurance policies cover. The companies have until Aug. 15 to sign off on the settlement. If the settlement is approved, the state would begin arbitration next month to allocate the money.