COLUMBIA, S.C. --- North American Midway Entertainment felt a pinch in business this year year due to multiple factors, none of which had to do with the weather, according to company officials.
The Las Vegas mass shootings and the Ohio State Fair ride accident had an affect on midway sales over the last half of the season, said Blake Huston, unit manager and the son of Danny Huston. The elder Huston and Jeff Blomsness are among the carnival's primary stakeholders.
The West Side Nut Club Fall Festival in Evansville, IN., for example, which typically draws attendance of 200,000, was down this year despite ideal weather, Blake Huston said. The event, which has no gate admission, took place in early October, just
prior to the South Carolina State Fair.
"People were not coming out as much and those that were there were not staying as long," Huston said. "People were talking about what happened in Las Vegas. Attendance was down and I think that incident was still fresh in people's minds."
Huston was in Evansville supervising the Mid-America Shows unit, which is part of North American Midway's overall operation. After NAME picked up the Arkansas State Fair this year, the carnival made some adjustments.
Tony Diaz, who ran the midway at South Carolina over the past decade, switched to Arkansas. In turn, Huston filled the gap in Columbia, his final spot of the year before heading back to his family in Farmland, Ind.
Here at the South Carolina State Fair, attendance was down by about 35,000. NAME's ride income dropped by almost $480,000, resulting in an 11 percent decrease compared with 2016, as reported by Tom Powell for the Outdoor Amusement Business Association newsletter.
The cancellation of ZZ Top, among the concert headliners at the fair's Pepsi Grandstand, did not help, Huston said. "Concerts are not a huge deal here, but those events usually bring in 5,000 people," he said.
On top of those issues, the carnival struggled with a shortage of labor tied to the H2B Visa program for international workers. North American Midway Entertainment typically employs 400 workers from Mexico and South Africa, but did not get most of those people until late August, Huston said.
A combination of several factors left the carnival in a bind. The landscaping business eats up half of the workers available and carnivals that go out earlier in the season get a jump on other shows that depend on the labor source, Huston said.
Plus, there were fewer H2B workers available this year after the federal government applied a cap of 66,000 employees with no exemptions for returning workers under the Department of Labor program. Blomsness said it's a never-ending battle for the carnival industry.
"Everybody had to do twice as much work," he said. "We advertised in social media and in newspapers for local help and then we have to train them, which takes up more time. For the American labor force, some of them tell us they can make more money by going on welfare. What are you going to do?"
For North American Midway Entertainment, compounding the labor issue was the tragic loss of Jeff Shuper, one of the carnival's most valuable employees. Shuper died in a car accident in mid-October near Jackson, Miss.
Shuper worked for the old Farrow Shows before the carnival was consolidated into the NAME family. He was the ultimate trouble shooter with the skills to work on multiple rides, Huston said.
"It was a huge loss for our company and for the industry," he said.
This year, North American Midway held the line on ride purchases and instead focused on improving its infrastructure. The carnival purchased four new bunkhouses from Lifetime Manufacturing, two new generators from Showmen's Supply and five new Ford vans to help transport employees.
Looking ahead to 2018, company officials are waiting to see how things shake out in the industry with equipment tied to the KMG Fireball ride and other super spectaculars produced by the European manufacturer.
It was a Fireball owned and operated by Amusements of America that resulted in the death of an 18-year-old man at the Ohio State Fair in late July, resulting in multiple states imposing temporary bans on that piece of equipment.
On its own, NAME owns eight KMG products, including three Fireballs, and those rides have been out of operation since the accident in Columbus.
The carnival's first big event next year is the Miami-Dade County Fair in March, which is among North America's biggest fairs. As of last month, the show did not know whether those rides would be approved for use in Florida.
It would most likely require purchasing replacement parts, a major investment, Huston said.
"Several fairs have told us they don't want the Fireball and Freak Out," he said. "We have not ordered new parts. The Fireball is a big ride, one of our top-grossing pieces and it would not be easy to replace. The capital expenditure is huge and we don't want to spend the money if the fairs don't want the ride."
"As of now, it's too early to make a decision," Huston said. "Certain states have different things they want tested now and additional testing would be required in the State of Florida. But it all goes back to whether the fair wants them in the first place."