Charles Panacek Jr. is crossing his fingers this summer like every other carnival owner.
An economy that can't seem to recover from the recession and $4 a gallon for diesel gas has made it difficult to generate revenue this year, but Panacek, the owner of Belle City Amusements, remains hopeful business will pick up the latter half of 2011.
"Fuel prices are awful and it has been bad for several years now," Panacek said. "Our winter route was good, we had better weather compared with the previous year. Spring was up a bit. It's been a mixed bag, up and down."
For Belle City, this year is its third season of operation after purchasing most of Mighty Blue Grass Shows' route and several rides. The two carnivals did business for several years sharing dates until Blue Grass owner Jim Murphy sold his show and retired from the business. Through that acquisition, Belle City, in its 63rd season overall, picked up state fairs in Iowa and Nebraska, and two big Florida dates, the Greater Jacksonville Fair and Strawberry Festival in Plant City.
The purchase did not include old Blue Grass dates in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Belle City continues to play eight of the dates for which it had contracts before buying Blue Grass' assets.
As June came to a close, Belle City was halfway through its two-month residency in Kentucky. The weather was good but spending was "still tight" at the McCracken County Fair in Paducah, Panacek said. Friday, June 24 was Midnight Magic with free gate admission after 9 p..m., a $2 value. Belle City ran a $15 armband special as it has for the past several years. The six-day event typically draws 40,000 to 45,000 attendance, not bad, he said.
Belle City's Fourth of July event could not be in a more perfect setting, the Fort Campbell, Ky. army base, home of the 101st Airborne Division. Two more regional and county fairs follow in Lexington and Madison, Ky., before the show heads to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. Some equipment will be sent to the Ohio State Fair in Columbus, where Belle City lends a hand to Amusements of America at that event.
In turn, Belle City relies on other shows to expand and improve its midway operation. The Big A, Myers Amusements, Arnold's Amusements and independent ride owner Michael Wood all book rides with Belle City at the Strawberry Fest. Outside of Florida, two more independents, Nick Pelino and Rio Cristiani, book attractions with Belle City.
Iowa has traditionally been a strong date, both for Belle City and Blue Grass before the show was sold, according to Panacek. Nebraska is in better shape financially after state officials relocated the event in 2010 to Grand Island, Neb., 95 miles west of Lincoln, its home for 108 years. The fair was drowning in red ink and on the brink of bankruptcy before the state decided to move it to a central location and invested $42 million to build a new fairgrounds complex in Grand Island.
"It's a lot more rural but it draws from other parts of the state," Panacek said.
The Jacksonville fair anchors Belle City's fall route. Like Blue Grass did, Belle City carves out two periods every season where it comes off the road and into winter quarters. From mid-January until April 1, Belle City plays Florida events before shutting down for maintenance until June 1. At that point, the carnival cranks back up again until mid-November and season's end.
Charles Panacek is president of Belle City and his two full-grown children play key roles as well. Zachary, who turned 26 on June 23, is general manager. Charlotte, 21, is a full-timer for the first time this year working the office. Electrician Jerry Sears, with Belle City for nine years, and his wife Tabitha, is office manager. Mike McCormick is ride superintendent and his wife Jill manages the show's food operation.
Mary Panacek, Charles' mother, is Belle City's vice president and helps with public relations.
Jim Murphy, whose brother Jerry still runs Murphy Bros. Exposition, recently bought a new home in Florida and "still helps us with whatever we need," Panacek said.
Belle City's labor situation is holding steady. The carnival has not had to hire international workers for the past four years and keeps a substantial part of its crew on board year after year.
Now, if the economy would rebound on a steady course without taking two steps back, the Panaceks would have no complaints. The recession has kept people closer to home but if they have no money it spend, it doesn't make much of a difference, Panacek siad.
"We are doing our best to try to conserve fuel and work with fairs to cut back on our hours of operation," he said. "But you can't shorten the mileage [between events]. Our pricing is set in the contracts so we couldn't change it if we wanted too. We don't want to drive away the public. Our hands are tied."
Photos taken at Ft. Campbell - courtesy of Jimmy Dillman.