Officials with Skerbeck Bros. Shows see brighter days ahead for the carnival business in their home state of Michigan.
The carnival, whose roots date to 1857 when Frank Skerbeck bought a circus in Bohemia, has operated in Michigan for the past 50 years.
In 2002, five years before the recession took hold across the country, Michigan had its own "one state recession" tied to the slump in the automobile industry in Detroit and neighboring cities, said Jamie Skerbeck, the show's general manager and lot man.
Fast forward to 2012, and the outlook is improving, according to Skerbeck, a former financial analyst in Memphis who returned to the show in 2002.
The auto industry is starting to add new jobs, Michigan's unemployment rate is declining from a high of 15 percent, and personal income is increasing. All those factors point to a good season this year, Skerbeck said.
For the Skerbecks, an early gauge of the season came during the annual International Independent Showmen's Foundation trade show in Gibsonton, Fla.
"We spent a day at the Florida State Fair. It was Kid's Day, and we had a hard time parking and getting in the gates, which I guess is a good thing," Skerbeck said. "It was crowded."
Hard times aren't over yet, though, he acknowledged. The Skerbecks share the concerns of fellow show owners over escalating fuel costs and its affect on the bottom line.
As both gas and diesel prices push past $4 a gallon, Skerbeck Bros. has been working to consolidate its routes this year with the goal of keeping jumps under 200 miles.
In addition, the carnival bought two new large generators and two smaller generators for the two units. All four machines have the latest in fuel efficiency technology, Skerbeck said.
For further savings, the carnival is gradually going through the process of converting all 50 rides to LED lighting, which require about 90 percent less power than traditional bulbs.
Show officials are also making a conscious effort to keep ride and marquee signs off during daytime operation, Skerbeck said.
Despite the recent downturn, the Skerbecks have been aggressive with new ride purchases over the past six years, reflecting improvements in the show's routes. This year's new attractions are a Ross Owen Mardi Gras and Wisdom Orient Express.
Those two pieces follow previous acquisitions of a Chance Alpine Bobs (2011), ARM Vertigo (2010), Mulligan Giant Wheel (2009), ARM Super Shot (2008) and a Wisdom Himalaya (2007).
Skerbeck Bros. is one of the last shows to move a Chance Toboggan over the road, a 55-foot long roller coaster that "cork-screws" riders down a central shaft, Skerbeck said.
Key dates include the Upper Peninsuala State Fair, Allegan County Fair, Ingham County Fair, Fowlerville Family Fair and the Dickinson County Fair, all in Michigan, and the LaPorte County Fair in Indiana.
The Upper Peninsula event is in the Skerbecks' home town of Escanaba, and is one of the biggest fairs in the state after the Michigan State Fair in Detroit was dissolved in 2009 due to financial troubles. Skerbeck Bros. has played the Dickinson County event since the 1940s.
The Skerbecks have maintained a loyal work force over the past several years with 50 percent to 60 percent of staff returning each season.
"There seems to be an inverse relationship between the strength of the economy and our ability to find qualified people," Skerbeck said. "We have not had to use H2B Visa workers, although we typically get two to four J1 Visa students to help with game concessions."
Trucking and health insurance are other major issues. Keeping qualified CDL drivers is difficult during the offseason when drivers go to work for other companies.
Changes in federal healthcare requirements over the next two years will require employers with more than 50 employees to pay insurance or face fines up to $2,000 per employee. Those added costs will have a huge impact on larger carnivals, Skerbeck said.
The carnival is owned by fifth generation brothers Joe and Bill Skerbeck and their wives, Dennie and C.J. Jamie is Joe's son. Sonja, Jamie's wife, is director of marketing and bookings.
Other key employees: John Burrows and Dustin Skerbeck, ride superintendents; Niki Skerbeck, office and food manager; Cheryl Kedrowicz and Arline Altenberg, office managers; Cindy Skerbeck, food manager, Rai Campana, concession manager; and Norbert Kedrowicz, safety coordinator.
Skerbeck Bros. opens the season in mid-April when Joe's unit plays a still date at a shopping center in Grand Rapids, Mich. It coincides with spring break for the Skerbeck children. Bill Skerbeck's unit opens a week later in the upper peninsula before heading further south.