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North Carolina State Fair Manager, Wesley Wyatt, speaks out on states bid process for midway contracts

1/23/2006

By Matt Cook

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The topic of the North Carolina State Fair contract has been of high interest on Matts Carnival Warehouse, thus, we decided to interview NC State Fair manager Wesley Wyatt about the fair and the bidding process. Mr. Wyatt graciously agreed to answer our questions and the interview is posted for you below.


MCW: Please tell us a little about how long you have been the manager and some of your background.

WW: First of all, the North Carolina State Fair is division of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, a state agency. The Fair is an enterprise fund, meaning we receive no appropriations from our legislature. All of our expenses, including salaries, the cost of putting on a fair and capital improvements are generated through revenues we create from the annual fair and from leasing our buildings and grounds to events every day except Christmas Day. Our salaries are set by the North Carolina Office of State Personnel.

I have worked with the North Carolina State Fair since the summer after my junior year in high school. In the summer breaks I had from college and at busy times of year, e.g. I worked at the fair. That work included running a weedeater, setting up events at our buildings, setting up and cleaning horse stalls, and working events including cleaning bathrooms, setting tables, etc. After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in business administration, I continued my education at N. C. State University, getting an A.A. degree in Field Crops Technology. I went on permanent at the State Fair in September of 1979. I worked as an event coordinator and as commercial space manager until 1992, when I was named Assistant Manager. Upon the death of Manager Sam Rand two weeks before the 1997 State Fair, I was named Manager and have served in that capacity since. One of my focuses has been capital improvements to the fairgrounds. For instance, the new 50,000 square foot exhibition building that was finished hours before the start of the 2005 Fair already has 45 events scheduled in it for 2006. It has 32 womens toilet facilities finished in all porcelain tile walls and floors with a nursing room, corian counters and other amenities. All that despite code compliance would have required only 5 toilets. The point being we want to meet the demands we have and maintain our position as a destination for the public year round. I have three children, 18, 15 and 11 and have been married 21 years. I am a native North Carolinian.

2) MCW: The bidding process using the per capita formula was certainly unique. How did the fair come to settle on this method?


WW: The scandals concerning the State Fair carnival contract for 2002 and the subsequent indictments and convictions are well known. Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps resigned in June 2003. Britt Cobb, a career employee with the Department of Agriculture was named Commissioner of Agriculture by the Governor and he was determined to remove the public doubt created by the wrongful actions of the past administration. He voided the 2003 contract with Amusements of America. We all agreed on the need to have a true competitive process to select a carnival provider. After deliberation, we found the concept of a per capita bid to be a novel, and, most importantly very objective and transparent approach. Once carnivals have been evaluated as to ride inventory, safety records, etc. and been found to be capable of meeting our requirements, then they were qualified to bid and, essentially we were satisfied with whichever company then provided the high bid. No additional "dings", no hidden fees or obligations were obligated or expected. It also was easy on our part as we have always given totally accurate reports on total and paid attendance, always having paid attendance in excess of 80%.

3) MCW: You have now had 5 carnivals in five years. They are all excellent companies but are you worried that this can not last and that to be a good carnival and to do a good job, these companies need to have some stability year to year?


WW: Unfortunately, we received no acceptable bids on the three year agreement. We recognized the need for stability - both from the standpoint of the carnival, but also from our standpoint and those of the area fairs we affect by this process. But by law, we have, up until January 1 of this year, been prevented from entering into multiyear, short-term contracts without going through the North Carolina State Property Office. We petitioned and were given approval by the North Carolina Council of State to enter into three year contracts as long as there was a competitive process to make the selection. Our original RFP (Request for Proposals) was for a three year agreement. In addition, other important components new to this agreement was raising the advance sale ride book price from $9 to $10, giving the carnival an additional quarter million dollars based on last years figures. Also, we gave an incentive to purchase new rides, allowing the carnival to cut the bid price up to twenty cents provided they brought two spectacular or super spectacular rides purchased within the last 24 months. Finally, this year we will have a military day at the Fair on Wednesday, allowing active duty military personnel and their families free admittance to the fair. Those customers will not be counted in the total owed by the carnival. The agreement with Powers Great American Midways is identical to the RFP opened on January 10, with the exception it is a one year agreement only.

4) MCW: This may be the first time a carnival was selected “out of a hat”. I know I am oversimplifying but how did you arrive at that method and tell us what you can about the thought process in going that way.


WW: It was obvious that the carnivals had issues with the process we used and showed that through no bids and low bid January 10. Rather than reissue the RFP and possibly suffer another similar outcome, we considered options including an independent midway and negotiating with a carnival. Prior to our meeting Tuesday afternoon, we conversed with interested parties in the amusement industry, listening to their thoughts and ideas. But on Tuesday, we, as a team of all N. C. Department of Agriculture employees, without input from carnivals and the amusement industry, decided to proceed with negotiation. We decided $5.50 was a reasonable price. The decision to negotiate meant just that - that is not to have an auction but offer the contract to a qualified carnival, and if rejected move on to another. The names of the carnival were put in a cup and in the presence of our group Commissioner Troxler drew the order of calling. So, that process did not determine the carnival. It only determined the order in which they would be called and presented an offer.


5) MCW: Any thoughts on how the process may go in the future?


WW: We will see how this years fair goes and make that decision later in the year. In the meantime, we will travel and see independent midways in operation.

6) MCW: Is an independent midway a viable option for the future and what are some of the plusses and minuses of going in that direction?


WW: This is an option but it is something we want to carefully look at. The benefits of directly choosing ride providers and ride pieces are nice, but we want to see the administrative costs and whether it would improve a system we have been satisfied with.

7) MCW: Turning now to Powers, he admittedly is an excellent carnival company but his State fair experience is very limited and so is his size compared to the shows you have had. Are there any special challenges you see for PGAM? What will he have to do to provide a midway on the same scale as you have had previously?


WW: With the attendance we have and the zeal for riding our customers have, any carnival would have to book in additional ride pieces to satisfy that demand. PGAM has excellent equipment, including the support equipment, e.g. trucks, generators, maintenance trailers, etc. They have the connections to bring in excellent ride pieces from other carnivals and independent owners.

8) MCW: How difficult is the media to work with in Raleigh? There was so much controversy over the selection of the carnivals over the years, the inspection process with Wade last year, etc. Are all the decisions you make under such scrutiny? Does it make your job more difficult?


WW: Well, it does seem we are in a fish bowl a lot of the time. All the more reason to do things in a businesslike, professional and open manner.

9) MCW: Tell us a few of the goals you hope to accomplish with the fair and the midway this year.


WW: We hope to finish the midway area and the parking lot between it and the Scott Building with our Phase III improvements. That consists of installing all underground utilities, lighting, landscaping, and finished paving. The design calls for cam lock electrical panels in the center feeding boxes in the center line of the street for powering concessions. Basically, we provide permanent underground wiring for the carnival to simply hook their generator to.

Also, we will have a 7,000 square foot building that will have approximately 50 toilet fixtures and will have our public safety and public health staff. This building will be located on the new midway.

10) MCW: Thank you Mr. Wyatt for your time and for agreeing to be our first subject for the launch of the new MCW News and Interview feature.

Related article: January 26: North Carolina State Fair Plans for Future Development.

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