Stratosphere grounded again

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 26, 2012 - 7:05 AM

The 200-foot-high swing ride was closed most of Saturday for a maintenance issue. With an inspector's OK, it reopened at nightfall.

It was a Minnesota milestone for Joe and Sonia Boelke's 13-month-old: her first time at the State Fair. They were ready Saturday, armed with a camera, a cute purple tutu for their toddler -- and plenty of hand sanitizer.

"We thought about, should we go in?" Sonia Boelke said of the Swine Barn. "But we've got lots of Purell."

The escalating swine-flu concern after the state Health Department reported one confirmed case and one probable case in Dakota County deterred some fairgoers on the first weekend of the fair, but it couldn't keep fans like the Boelkes from marveling at their favorite farm animals.

The Roseville couple snapped photos of their wide-eyed toddler, Nora, next to a 300-pound black-and-white barrow named Spot, but they didn't let her touch it. Libby Warner stood in the crate, petting her plump pig as he snorted and nudged her leg. She said public concern over the Swine Barn is overblown.

Of the three years she's helped her parents show animals from their farm near Walnut Grove, this year has had the lightest crowds so far, she said. "This is the most I've seen all week," she said.

State health authorities and fair officials kept the swine exhibits open as usual, issuing precautions and posting reminders to wash hands. Jill Resler, who represents the Minnesota Pork Board and owns an Owatonna farm with her husband, said she understands people's wariness.

"Families have to do what's right for them," she said. "But it's important they come to enjoy the fair, too."

One indicator of the barn's success will be evident by fair's end, thanks to those pink paper pig ears people get after visiting. The Minnesota Pork Board gives away 60,000 hats during the fair, so "if we've got a lot of extra pig ears, we'll know the crowds were lighter," Resler said.

Val Laugtug of St. Paul dragged her niece, Wendy Paffel of Naples, Fla., into the barn to see the fair's largest boar, a 1,200-pound pig from Hutchinson, even though a nurse had told Paffel to avoid the pigs.

"I'm not concerned enough not to come in," Laugtug said, folding her arms as she walked the barn's aisles, "but I'm not touching anything."

Meanwhile, the popular swing ride, the Stratosphere, reopened Saturday evening after two days of complications.

The 200-foot-high ride stalled Thursday and Friday, leaving riders briefly stuck up in the air, and was shut down again Saturday. Owner Tom McDonagh said a different maintenance issue prompted them to close the ride, to the disappointment of passing fairgoers.

The ride reopened at 8:10 p.m. with an inspector's approval and the maintenance issues fixed, State Fair Marketing and Communications Manager Brienna Schuette said in a statement. State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer and a team of senior staff were among the first passengers on the ride after it reopened.

"We just want to make it perfect," he said, adding that there weren't any safety concerns.

The ride also malfunctioned at the Wisconsin State Fair this month.

Staff writer Abby Simons contributed to this report. Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 • Twitter: @kellystrib

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