BLOOMSBURG - Paul Reichart knew the cleanup effort from last year's flood was a big success after talking with Rick Reithoffer, president of Reithoffer Shows, the company in charge of the rides and midway at the Bloomsburg Fair.

"Rick told me that the grounds are the best that he's ever seen them," Reichart, Bloomsburg Fair Board president, said Wednesday. "We've gotten everything done that we wanted to accomplish."

He gives a lot of credit to the volunteers who worked diligently to return the grounds to their glory.

"So many people worked so hard for us," Reichart said. "I feel the volunteers really saved the Bloomsburg Fair."

To thank them, the board voted to dedicate the 2012 fair to volunteers.

Long road

It's been a long road back.

Last September's flood was ruinous, ripping up chunks of blacktop, knocking down fences and destroying vendors' stands. The water reached 9 to 10 feet in some buildings, knocked two barns off their foundations, and deposited several inches of mud throughout the low-lying fairgrounds.

There was little sign of flood damage as hundreds of vendors finished setting up their stands this week.

Fair organizers dedicated this year's edition to the hundreds of volunteers who helped clean up the mess and get the fair back on its feet.

Denny Briggs, 69, and his wife Pearl have run food concessions at the Bloomsburg Fair since 1973. He said last year's cancellation hurt: "There are 1,000 food stands, and it took a big chunk of business from all of us."

This year, Briggs and his wife will be helped at the fair by all five of their children, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren. As usual, the menu will include pizza, barbecue, funnel cakes and cotton candy.

Briggs, who was painting his stand Wednesday, said he could already hear his regulars calling to him: "Hey, Denny!"

"I remember their faces, their voices," he said.

The fair got its start in 1855 as a one-day agricultural exhibition, featuring fruits and grains grown by Columbia County farmers. Admission was a dime. Over time, other exhibits were added, then entertainment - though the freak-show attractions have long since given way to more mainstream acts.

SkyRide ready

New this year will be the SkyRide, a ski-lift type transportation module from Reithoffer that will be a permanent attraction. It hovers 25 feet about the ground, taking riders from the kiddie ride section to the beginning of the midway.

"I was watching it operate the other day, and I was trying to count and see how long it would take a car to make a round trip. With 120 cars on the line, it will be a scenic ride for sure," Reichart said.

Cost for the ride will be $3 one way and $5 round-trip.

Also new this year is the grandstand stage, constructed in 2011. Grandstand director W. Carey Howell said the stage, set for debut last year, held up pretty well in the Flood of 2011.

"We had some mud on the floor and a couple of the scrims and drapes needed cleaning," Howell said. "Otherwise, we are ready."

Country music star and American Idol finalist Kellie Pickler will be the first to perform on the stage during a Preview Day concert at 7:30 p.m. today.

Pickler was scheduled to perform in 2008, but illness forced her to cancel the appearance. Those who attended were given a free performance by Pickler's opening act that night, the then-newly discovered group Lady Antebellum.

"That was a great show then, and we brought them back in 2010, but they cost a lot more the second time," Howell joked.

Concert tickets still available

The fair features a lineup of stars during its eight-day run, including Kenny Rogers, Alan Jackson, Jeff Dunham, the Gaither Vocal Band, Rodney Atkins, Billy Currington and Brantley Gilbert, along with figure 8 racing, truck and tractor pulls and the always-popular demolition derby.

Howell said Thursday that tickets are available for all the grandstand shows, though some are in short supply.

"We've got about a few hundred seats left, both in the grandstand and on the track for Alan Jackson and Jeff Dunham," he said.

Fair admission rises from $5 to $8 this year, but Reichart said the increase was needed to combat a $3.3 million loss in 2011.

Reichart said he believes the higher prices won't affect demand, considering fair fans didn't get their fix last year.

"We used the money from our reserve, took out a loan (for $1.4 million) from a local bank and borrowed $600,000 from our vendors from last year's fees. We didn't ask, or receive, any help from the government for our loss," he said. "The increased admission, I hope, will enable to get that debt down in five years."

'Best ever'?

Directors, though, don't want to talk about debt and flooding, they want to talk about the new rides that are coming this year, the more than 1,000 vendors on the fairgrounds and the chance to help the local economy.

"My secretary has a stand here at the fair, and she jokes that she makes as much at the fair as I pay her all year," Reichart said. "That one year off, many say will hurt us, but I think we are going to have, attendance-wise, the best Bloomsburg Fair ever."

(Michael Rubinkam, of The Associated Press, contributed to this report.)