After a year turned upside down by the pandemic, the State Fair is all lined up and ready for the show ring

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Jul. 10—Each day throughout the year, an electronic sign on U.S. 219 in Fairlea reminds passersby how many days remain until the start of the next State Fair of West Virginia.

"It's just 37 days now," fair CEO Kelly Collins said July 6.

At this time last year, however, that number, which sits at 32 today, read somewhere in the neighborhood of 395. That was just a few weeks after rising Covid-19 numbers forced the cancellation of the 2020 fair, prompting a countdown to an event more than a year away.

And during the 10 days in August when the fairgrounds would ordinarily have been filled with lines for rides or vendors, they were instead replaced by healthcare workers and community members lining up for Covid testing and, months later, Covid vaccines.

Though Collins said it wasn't easy to watch a year of planning — and 95 years of tradition — fall away, she said the fair's role in community recovery was necessary.

"We knew to be able to do our jobs, we had to help the health department and all the medical officials across the state do their jobs," she said. "It might not have been a line for a ride or a concert, but it was a line that was more than important for our community and for our state to get back to business."

And she said they remained optimistic as they planned the event that is now less than five weeks away.

"It's been a long two years without a state fair," she said. "So, we're excited to finally celebrate our 96th Annual State Fair of West Virginia.

----This year's event, themed "Brighter Days are Here," kicks of Aug. 12 and runs through Aug. 21.

From the bright lights of the carnival midway, to the livestock barns, to vendors — both arts and crafts and food — to free entertainment along the fairgrounds, to the featured entertainment in the grandstand, Collins said fairgoers of all ages will find a mix of familiar and new to enjoy.

"We've got a really nice free entertainment lineup," she said, noting the ever-popular hypnotist Catherine Hickland will return to center stage.

"She's a fan favorite," Collins said. "It's hilarious to watch outside of my office window the people participating in that show.

"She's a lot of fun."

Other free shows include a Hot Glass Academy, Dino Encounter, The One Man Band, Marc Dobson, and Professor Newton, all of which perform three times daily.

Also, Timberworks Lumberjack Show will return to the fair after a few years away.

"That's a fun show so it's nice to bring them back," Collins said.

Reithoffer Shows will return, providing carnival rides.

"They've been with us for years and always do a very good job," Collins said, adding the carnival will bring a few new rides this year.

Like the fair itself, Collins said Reithoffer and the food vendors who travel in from throughout the east coast suffered as a result of Covid.

"The carnival was shut down and a lot of our food vendors lost every single stop on their route for the entire year," Collins said.

And Covid even hurt 4-H students who enter animals in the fair.

"That was one of the most heartbreaking things for me last year," she said. "There's millions of dollars tied up in the livestock projects at the state fair and in county fairs across the state.

"It's the state championship for a lot of these kids," she continued. "We're excited to get back to normal for those kids as well."

Collins said it's never easy to book the state fair concert schedule, but it's even more difficult to book at a time of uncertainty and in competition with nearly every other venue in the country.

"We had to book pretty early," she said. "Every concert venue throughout the country that had been closed down for a year and a half was trying to return at the same time, so we were lucky to be able to get the lineup we did."

The State Fair of West Virginia's 2021 concert's kick off Aug. 12 with a performance by rapper Nelly.

"We wanted a little bit of diversity in our lineup," Collins said. "Something a little bit different and Nelly was a perfect fit."

Collins said she knew Nelly, known for hits including "Hot In Here," "Ride Wit Me," and "Dilemma," would be popular, but she said she didn't expect the show to sell as quickly as it did.

"When we first put the show on sale, the track seats were sold out within minutes," she said, explaining about 1,000 of 8,000 possible tickets remain.

Other concerts include Whiskey Myers, For King and Country, Styx, Brantley Gilbert, Tracy Byrd and Tracy Lawrence, and Brantley Gilbert.

"Styx is a big one," Collins said. "Classic rock always does well at the fair. And Brantley Gilbert always sells out every time he's here so we're also looking forward to that one.

"... I think it's a great lineup."

----Collins said fair officials continue to work with the health department and local officials and said fairgoers should expect to see some Covid procedures in place in different locations.

"There's going to be some one-way traffic throughout some of the more populated areas like the grandstand," she said. "Same thing in our barns. And we'll have extra sanitization around the property as well, but it's going to look pretty much normal."

Collins said she knows not everyone is ready for a big event just yet, and she said she "understands and hopes to see those folks in 2022."

But she said she looks forward to welcoming everyone else out for a safe, fun fair week.

"We know it's been a long year on everybody with Covid pretty much limiting us to what we can do," she said. "We're excited to open our gates so that everybody can spend time with friends and family, eat some good food, ride some carnival rides and check out the livestock shows.

"It feels good to be back to somewhat normal and we hope that we see everyone here."

----Advance discount tickets are available online at www.statefairofwv.com and at One Stop and Stop In food stores throughout the state through July 31.