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Fans embrace fairgrounds' new look

Tailgaters kick off the home game season in he newly renovated Fairgrounds parking lot. The lot features grassy parking spaces, asphalt,  lighting and trees. Here, from left, Knox Talbert, Carol Culbertson, Michael Culbertson, Lauran Thorndyke, Linda Straight, Keith Bradsher, Megan Bradsher and Bobby Stephens relax after eating in the lot. For their spacious pad, they purchased three parking spots.
Tailgaters kick off the home game season in he newly renovated Fairgrounds parking lot. The lot features grassy parking spaces, asphalt, lighting and trees. Here, from left, Knox Talbert, Carol Culbertson, Michael Culbertson, Lauran Thorndyke, Linda Straight, Keith Bradsher, Megan Bradsher and Bobby Stephens relax after eating in the lot. For their spacious pad, they purchased three parking spots. tglantz@thestate.com

Gamecock fans by the thousands Saturday poured into parking lots and even squeezed into alleyways to be within walking distance of Williams-Brice Stadium for the first home game of the season.

Over in Carolina Fair Park, they set up tables, put up tents and pulled out enough food to send an army off to war.

And though they prepared themselves to do just that - go to war with Florida Atlantic - the real struggle seemed to be in finding a few extra feet here and there in the State Fairgrounds' newly renovated parking lot.

"It's the length of the spaces," said Cy Burgess, who was tossing a football around with his son and his son's friend in the new lot.

A USC graduate and longtime tailgater, Burgess opted to leave his 18-foot Chevy Suburban at home in lieu of his friend's smaller, more compact Honda Pilot.

Burgess said the Suburban would not have left room for much else in the 18-foot space. And though USC officials have said the parking spaces in the 40-acre lot are the same size they were before, the spaces are now defined by white lines in the grass.

"But that's the only issue I have with it," Burgess said. "Overall, I think it's a vast improvement over what was here before. It will add a lot to the whole experience."

Over in the Green section along Row 11, Chris Goodnight had a similar issue with the spaces.

"If these had been sold, or if it had been a bigger game, we wouldn't have been able to do this," he said, pointing to an expanse of grass on the other side of his assigned space. He and friends had been playing cornhole in the empty spaces and had used the unsold lots to spread out.

He and other members of his tailgating party said they liked the new lot overall, though there had initially been some confusion over how much space they could take up.

"The parking-lot attendants came by earlier and told us we had to move our tent back off the road," he said, pointing to the garnet and black canopy over a Lincoln Aviator. "They said there had to be 6 feet from the middle of the road to the edge of the grass to allow for traffic."

And though Goodnight complied with the request, most fans had set up tents or chairs slightly in the road and covering the edge of their tailgate or parking space.

Some even got creative.

Longtime friends and tailgaters Keith Bradsher and Knox Talbert, both of Columbia, had pooled three spaces with a third friend who couldn't make it for the game, and set up tents in an empty space between the remaining two vehicles.

"We actually planned it this way," said Talbert, adding that they had picked their spaces together so they could share in the tailgating fun. The group was grilling Bubba burgers in the cozy, almost cave-like area between their SUV and truck.

Bradsher said renovating the lot was a good move, not only for the fairgrounds but for the area in general.

"This has really been more of an industrial area in years past, but they're trying to make it more fan-friendly," he said. "And just think about how this will look in eight to 10 years, when all of these trees have grown and bloomed out. It will be beautiful and people will say, 'Wow, this is nice.'"

Jan Stevens, who has been attending Carolina games 30 years, supported Bradsher's long view. "What's not to like? It's clean; it's orderly. We love it."

Stevens and her husband, Paul, had come to an open house that fair officials had held a few weeks earlier, so they could find their space and tour the facility. "I know they spent a lot of money, but I think they did a great job with what they spent."

Stevens, who was setting out a red velvet cake, turkey rolls and her Gamecock-themed bean salad (for the red and black beans) especially liked the color-coded sections and the parking-lot lights. "It's going to be so easy to find our car when we come tonight. Before it was just so dark and dusty."

Before Saturday's game, Stevens said she and her husband had swapped their space for one closer to the stadium and adjacent to a grassy corner. "We're moving on up to the grassy side," she sang.

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