When the North Carolina State Fair opens this fall, attendees may have a new and unique ride that provides both an elevated view of the fair and decreases pedestrian congestion.
The North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services issued an RFP announcement last week for a company to build a sky-ride, essentially a chair-lift that will traverse the perimeter of the fair.
The deadline for proposals is June 4th and while an intensive review process will follow, approval is expected be fast-tracked because construction must likely begin by mid-summer. The first phase of the sky-ride must be ready for fairgoers to ride by October 15, opening day of the fair.
Going from RFP to the first stage of an operating chair-lift system in less than six months is not the only ambitious aspect of this new addition to the annual celebration of everything Tar Heel. Once the entire conveyance is finished - by the 2016 North Carolina Fair, if all goes according to plan - the North Carolina State Fair will have the longest chair-lift of any fair in the United States.
"In an effort to offer the best possible experience to our fairgoers, the North Carolina State Fair is excited to be looking at the options available to us in installing an aerial lift," said Wesley V. Wyatt, North Carolina State Fair Manager, N. C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. "While being a great view of the Fair, and providing entertainment for fairgoers, one of our main objectives with installing the chair-lift is as a people-mover. We have several congested areas of the Fairgrounds, especially on weekends, and we hope this will help manage the heavy pedestrian traffic in our tighter areas."
According to Wyatt, a North Carolina State Fair chair-lift was part of a Master Plan proposal that dates back to 2009, although the idea has evolved and been expanded upon since its introduction six years ago.
"I know it's been on the drawing board for a number of years," said Jonathan Brooks, President, Wagner Consulting Group, Inc. "It is very ambitious, and the install date is very ambitious, but it is doable."
Brooks was hired in December to oversee the planning and construction of the chair-lift. Formerly a Chief Inspector for the Department of Labor, Elevators and Amusement Devices, he has decades of experiences both inspecting midway rides and chair-lifts. In addition to working with more than 90 ski-resorts on chairlift design and safety, Brooks has consulted with numerous fairs about their chair-lift systems, including the South Florida State Fair, Nebraska State Fair and the Oklahoma State Fair.
But Brooks admits he has never been involved with a chair-lift system as elaborate as the one the North Carolina State Fair is pursuing. "This RFP is a very unusual, no fair has this type of configuration," he said. "Fairs just move patrons from point A to point B. This system will travel the perimeter of the entire fair."
This aerial lift will be about 40 feet above the ground. When completed - if the current proposal is fully translated into a workable design - the North Carolina State Fair Chair-lift will be approximately 4,100 feet long, including about 16 towers - to hold the suspended cables on which the chairs will traverse the perimeter of the fair - and four stations - basically access points for riders to get on or off the system.
While the first stage of the system will indeed move riders from a Point A to Point B - from Gate 8 - the most popular entry point to the fair - to the Graham Building, one of the most congested pedestrian bottlenecks of the fair - eventually the system will also connect to Gate 9 and the Scott Building, the C and D points that complete the layout.
According to Brooks, the layout will be "either a square or circle," and chairs will run in one direction. Whether or not riders will be able to travel around the entire loop in a single chair or have to transfer at a station is dependent on the final approved proposal. The reality is that "the fair is building four chair-lifts that will have to work as one system," he said. "It is very ambitious and not really attempted by another other fair." He added that the North Carolina State Fair chair-lift will traverse 1,000 feet more than any aerial lift system currently being used by a U.S. fair.
Once completed, the aerial lift will require 50 to 65 chairs, "but that is not a hard number," said Brooks. The chairs will seat two patrons.
In addition, having such an elaborate system on a fairground presents unique challenges. Brooks said that at least 16 towers - not including the four access stations - are needed to suspend the cables. "Placement of the towers is an issue, you don't want them in the middle of a pedestrian walkway," he said.
Phase one will require six or seven towers, depending on the final design and what manufacturer is used. "It's not like companies have chair-lift systems sitting on shelves waiting to be sold," said Brooks. "All the components will have to made for the project."
Also to be determined by the final design is if any landscaping modifications - such as moving a walkway to make room for a tower - will be necessary. A host of other issues, ranging from ADA compliance specifications to how much fairgoers should be charged to float above the crowds, still need to be resolved.
Besides bringing new extra excitement a fair that dates back to 1853, the assortment of towers, stations and chairs needed also create numerous advertising and sponsorship opportunities. "Promotional and marketing plans are in the works, but won't be completed until discussions are held with the successful winner of the bid," said Wyatt.
One issue the RFP process will hopefully resolve is how existing North Carolina State Fair midway will interface with the state-of-the-art conveyance. According to Brooks, there's no precise format in place - some fairs utilize their lifts like any ride, with the construction and operations the entire responsibility of the fair's carnival company - a ride on the lift takes the same ticket as any other midway ride. For other fairs, the chair-lift is entirely separate from the midway, with either the fair or another entity handling all aspects of operations. The tickets to ride at those fairs are exclusive to the chair-lift. "I've seen it done both ways," said Brooks. "Both have their strong points and it remains to be seen will happen at the North Carolina State Fair."
Powers Great American Midways is the midway provider for the fair. Corky Powers told Carnival Warehouse that he was still "considering options" and would only submit a proposal with Wade Shows, who he subcontracts with at the fair. (The Giant Wheel at North Carolina State Fair is a Wade Show Attraction; at approximately 100 feet high, it will still be the highest vantage point at the fair). The midway company was among three companies represented at the at a pre-proposal meeting, held May 19. Wade Shows currently has experience running chair lifts at other state fairs.
Strates Shows, at one time the midway provider for the fair, once utilized at a portable chair-lift that carried fairgoers over a portion of the midway. Strates Shows was the fair's long time carnival company, although that relationship ended in 2002. The RFP announcement calls for the chair-lift to be a permanent part of the infrastructure of the fairgrounds. Operators will be permitted - and encouraged - to make the chair-lift available for other fairground events.
The chair-lift may also help the North Carolina State Fair turn-around an attendance downturn. In 2010, fair attendance exceeded the one million mark, the peak gate for the event, but the numbers have dwindled ever since. In 2014 the attendance was 929,748. In 2013, a ride accident that was ruled an act by a disgruntled employee of a subcontracted ride operator, sent five people to the hospital and the negative publicity affected 2014 attendance. In 2013, attendance reached 927,563. In 2012, attendance was 965,297.