GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The final bolts were tightened on the midway rides Wednesday afternoon. Prized pigs and cows were groomed, fresh funnel cake batter was mixed and burned-out neon light bulbs …
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The final bolts were tightened on the midway rides Wednesday afternoon. Prized pigs and cows were groomed, fresh funnel cake batter was mixed and burned-out neon light bulbs were replaced ahead of Thursday’s opening of the Clay County Agriculture Fair.
For the first time in two years, the fairgrounds will be alive again with sound, sights and smells. There have been smaller events at the 85-acre facility in the months that followed last year’s cancellation for the COVID-19 pandemic, but nothing that comes close to the economic and social success when more than 135,000 people get together for a good time.
A final meeting Wednesday between county emergency management, Clay County Fire and Rescue, Clay County Sheriff’s Office and fair officials was the final hurdle that needed to be cleared.
The gates opened at 2 p.m. on Thursday, April 1. The fair will run through April 11.
In between, there will be 11 days of rides, eight nights of concerts, food and crafts vendors, exhibits and livestock competitions.
“These are busy times,” general manager Tasha Hyder said.
There won’t be any restrictions for distancing or attendance this year. Hand sanitizing stations have been installed throughout the complex. Masks are requested, but not required.
The marquee at the front gates started this year’s countdown the morning after the 2020 fair was canceled. It served as a painful reminder of the sacrifices that were required to get ahead of the pandemic. In the past two months, the sign became the light at the end of the tunnel for Hyder and her dedicated group of volunteers.
The first roll of the Ferris wheel Thursday meant nearly two years of planning and disappointment finally were in the rearview mirror. It also means there are new challenges.
“My biggest concern if traffic, to be honest with you. When you have record crowds, traffic is a nightmare every night,” Hyder said. “Normally we have to worry about it just on weekends or if we have a big concert, but this year I think we’ll have big nights every night.
“Our fair keeps getting bigger and bigger, but our two-lane road [State Road 16] has remained the same. There’s not much we can do about that. It’s a state road. [The state] is aware of it. We’re on their radar.”
Extra signage has been added along S.R. 16. Officials, however, are asking patrons to use a little patience.
“The Clay County Fair always draws a large crowd and we expect this year to be no different,” Sheriff Michelle Cook said. “People are looking for opportunities to get out and have fun with their families, especially since many special events over the past year were cancelled. With the good weather that is forecasted, we expect to see a lot of people coming out.
“We have been working with fair officials and our partners at CCFR and Emergency Management to develop traffic and safety plans. Our goal is to keep everyone safe and the traffic flowing. We ask that people be patient and kind to each other. We are looking forward to a great event.”
The 2019 fair attracted a record crowd of 135,000, and that came in 10 days. The extra fair day, along with pent-up anticipation and concert lineups that include 38 Special, Vanilla Ice, John Michael Montgomery, the Bellamy Brothers, JJ Gray and Mofro, Scotty McCreery, Tag Team, Niko Moon and local favorites Curt Towne Band and Duval County Line, should result in record turnouts.
Three of the concerts – McCreery on April 3, Vanilla Ice on April 5 and Gray on April 6 – are sold out. There are a limited amount of premium and VIP seats remaining for the other shows.
One change that should reduce the amount of one-on-one contact will be the use of armbands for the midway. Patrons can buy a band or download an app to gain admission for most of the rides. Patrons no longer have to buy separate tickets for each ride.
“Our motto is ‘What a Ride!’ It’s certainly been that,” Hyder said.