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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Author: Corbett, Kevin
Date published: September 8, 2010

Although there were many great moments for the just under a million people at New York State Fair 2010, it may be the unbearable heat that wilted visitors and tortured employees that is the most lasting memory. The television weather folks tried to tell us that 90 degrees and sunny is great Fair weather, but for half of the expo's 12 days it was just too damn hot on the steamy blacktop and downright scorching on the metal benches of Chevy Court, making the 999,845 final attendance number all the more impressive.

Before the tropical heat moved in, there were problems the first weekend when the attendance record for the first Saturday was shattered, the 115,324 visitors creating massive traffic jams. The following day there were issues from another source as tween darling Justin Bieber postponed his sold-out concert due to an unspecified illness. Some Bieber fans were infuriated when Fair administration declared they wouldn't honor the concert tickets sold months earlier for fans who wanted to enter the grounds on the original date. Those who came from a long distance, some of whom had stayed in nearby hotels, reportedly found support from mutinous gate staff, who rightly let many of them in anyway.

Fair director Dan O'Hara and company must be used to complaints by now as they have struggled from the beginning in treating people well and creating good will. Once again this year, media covering the Fair including, but by no means limited to, Syracuse New Times staff, wrestled to work around disorganization and inefficiency on the part of a Fair administration that continued a pattern of treatment marked by confusion, indifference and hostility. It doesn't have to be that way and never was before O'Hara.

Reporters and Bieber rooters weren't the only ones with a grievance this year as several vendors with Fair seniority were relocated, something that often affects their profits from serving habituated Fair customers. Lines were noticeably shorter than in previous years for the longtime favorite steak and chicken vendor Butcher Boys after Fair brass moved them from their traditional spot on Restaurant Row. Although manger Tara Christensen cited the hot weather as a factor, the new location sure didn't help.

"We're not in love with the location," Christensen confessed. "But we'd like it a lot better if they didn't have the gyro stand two doors down from us. We're not as busy as we have been, but it's also been five days of Timesterrible heat. A lot of people walked around for a while trying to find us. We were a little disappointed, but we expected to be a lot disappointed."

Another relocated vendor, Bob Hamley, who peddles lemonade, roses and popcorn, said business wasn't bad in his new spot between the Dairy Building and the International Pavilion. Hamley reported that he got his revenge when he got the attention of Gov. David Paterson and sold him cold drinks for his staff. "I told him, 'I'm going to charge you full price, governor,'" Hamley jabbed. "I said, 'I've got to pay my taxes.'"

Other vendors seemed to have disappeared, notably Patrician's Bakery and the Limp Lizard, with patrons left to ponder the story behind those absences. On the positive side, the large food stand formerly known as Tony's looked great as Danny D's, housed in a new structure.

More changes emerged around the sale of New York wines, this time mostly positive. The new wine tent, a few feet from the old one, was smaller but more wine was available on the grounds as several food stands were licensed for sale. With the stunning makeover of the International Pavilion, the wine bar was another option, standing among tiled walls, wood pillars, tablecloths and flowers in the grounds' classiest locale.

Patio seating areas and fences added to Chevy Court were beautiful, but that venue was overwhelmed by fans anyway, especially at Lady Antebellum's Sept. 1 appearance. There's still much work to be done to make concerts there worth the trouble. They can start with more video screen space, one on each side or a huge one directly over the stage.

Free entertainment continued to be a great draw as the Extreme Canine Triathlon and the Raptor Project encored to overflow crowds and Wild About Monkeys debuted as the best of the new animal acts, both funny and educational. If anyone saw the advertised appearance of the Irish Choppers, they're one up on us.

The human slingshot known as the Ejection Seat didn't seem very busy, perhaps due to the $25-per-rider charge, while the price on the Eurobubbles inexplicably went up to from $6 to $8 for eight minutes rolling across a pool in a giant hamster ball. The Smart Cart, a backpack on wheels, made a splash as a new item sold in the Center of Progress Building.

Although workers made substantial progress during the Fair on construction of a new Iroquois Longhouse, it was still not complete by Labor Day. It's something Fairgoers can look forward to next year.

With completion of a very successful Fair, staff can now step back, lift a glass of Finger Lakes wine in celebration and take a rest. Then it's back to work with plenty left to improve, expand and freshen. They can start with traffic and parking. There are some legitimate limitations with parking accommodations and feeder roadways, but the Fair could do a better job getting people off the roads and into lots by changing patterns and using more efficient staffing. And it's past time to put engineers to work figuring out how to add entrances and exits. The massive upper lot between Interstate 690 East and State Fair Boulevard, for instance, requires thousands of cars to use a single lane exit, creating an unmanageable bottleneck.

With a new governor being sworn in with the coming of the new year, speculation has already begun on what that means for the tenure of State Fair director Dan O'Hara. If a Republican is elected, he's gone, but the polls show Democrat Andrew Cuomo with a big head start. If Cuomo does move up from attorney general, he could retain O'Hara.

The last Cuomo to serve as governor, the AG's father Mario, conducted a search before hiring an experienced fair professional, Texan Wayne Gallagher, in 1989. So this could turn into a case of like father, like son, especially if the younger Cuomo wants to start with a clean slate instead of a director who is widely mistrusted and often disliked by everyone from labor unions and vendors to the media and many dedicated fairgoers.

-Kevin Corbett

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