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Fest turns downtown into fun central (with video)

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Scarlet Simpson, 9, raises her arms in the air as she rides the Orient Express roller coaster at the N.C. Potato Festival in downtown Elizabeth City, Friday. The three-day festival, which includes amusement rides, live music, games and food vendors, continues today starting at 10 a.m.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, May 19, 2017

The 2017 North Carolina Potato Festival kicked off Friday evening, filling downtown Elizabeth City with crowds eager to take in all the sights, sounds and tastes of the ever-expanding three-day event. Festival-goers were treated to flashy rides and games, live music, savory foods and a myriad of street booths.

Six-year-old Zoey Boca figured out her favorite part of the festival pretty quickly Friday night: the bumper cars, one of rides offered by Florida-based Degeller Attractions. Zoey's little sister was too young to ride one, but her mom, Teri Boca, said she joined in the fun.

Britt and Kris Hardie were among the early riders of the festival's Ferris wheel, a new attraction at this year’s festival. They said they enjoyed the ride, but said the food was likely going to be their favorite part of the festival.

The Hardies had no shortage of options, as food vendors lined Water Street and even wrapped over onto Main Street. One new vendor, right across from the main stage at the corner of Water and Main streets, was Perdue, one of the nation's largest poultry companies.

Perdue is at this year’s Potato Festival to raise money for Food Bank of the Albemarle as part of a new charitable program, company event staffer Jordan Anstutz explained. The company felt the festival, a good “community-based event,” was a good fit for the program, he said.

A smaller farm company, Wilkie Farms, is also at this year’s festival. Jason Wilkie said Wilkie Farms returned to the festival to offer animal rides, including not only ponies but camels. The farm's two camels always get a lot of attention, he said, and the farm enjoys letting kids ride them while teaching adults about the animals. Camels are good-natured and don't spit, contrary to what people hear, he said.

Local officials took the opportunity at a festival-kickoff ceremony Friday to welcome the many people visiting downtown.

“Welcome to the third expanded Potato Festival,” Elizabeth City Mayor Joe Peel said, referring to the event now being a three-day event. He also thanked the festival's many volunteers, including those from the U.S. Coast Guard, and some key event organizers, such as Tim and Cindy Williams.

Pasquotank Board of Commissioners Chairman Cecil Perry also offered his welcome, and his thanks to local farmers. There's good reason to celebrate the potato, he noted, because it's long been a vital crop for the area. The Potato Festival celebrates the region’s potato-growing heritage.

U.S. Coast Guard Base Elizabeth City Cmdr. Bruce Brown also greeted the crowd, and encouraged visitors to check out some events the Coast Guard will be offering throughout the festival. A coastal patrol boat, the Ivis, will be open for tours, and the Coast Guard will also perform a search-and-rescue demonstration today at 2 p.m.

Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc. Executive Director Deborah Malenfant, an event organizer, said the festival got off to a great start Friday, with people already showing up before the event officially opened at 5 p.m. She said some 250 volunteers will be working the event this weekend.

To help people get to and from the festival, she noted a shuttle will pick people up from Enfield Park, which is behind Bojangles on Enhringhaus Street. The shuttle makes trips every half hour, she said.

Malenfant also offered some advice to ensure festival-goers have a safe time. If a child is lost or someone needs help, they should seek help from a festival volunteer — the people wearing bright pinkish orange shirts — or one of the numerous police officials at the event. Police will be wearing bright green shirts.

Malenfant also encouraged people to stay hydrated, given it's expected to be warm this weekend, and to remain “situationally aware” as they navigate the crowded streets.

The festival resumes today at 10 a.m. and will continue until 11 p.m. A fireworks show over the Pasquotank River will start at 9 p.m.

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