CONCORD, N.C. --- One of the wettest summers in North Carolina history ended just in time for carnivals making their final sweep through the Tar Heel State this year.
The skies cleared here in early September for Powers Great American Midways. The carnival finishes it's season with a half-dozen dates in North Carolina, including the state fair in Raleigh and the Cape Fear Fair & Expo in Wilmington, where the carnival has had its winter quarters for the past 19 years. The Powers family also has homes in Wilmington.
Powers began its late-season string of N.C. dates at the Cabarrus County Fair, Sept. 6-14. Concord is a bedroom community just north of Charlotte, the same town where the Charlotte Motor Speedway is located. This was the eighth year the show has played the fair after taking over the contract from Deggeller Attractions, according to Les "Corky" Powers, the carnival's owner/operator.
The event relocated to a new site several years ago on county property that includes several permanent exhibit halls as well as the Cabarrus County Expo Center, a small arena managed by SMG. The county runs the fair and Powers has the luxury of setting up its equipment on a blacktop surface.
The complex first opened about 10 years ago and Cabarrus County Fair manager Kate Parker, a "young and aggressive" operator, has helped grow the event tremendously over the past decade, Powers said. To help drive attendance on the weekends, the fair had free gate admission from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., the first two and a half hours of operation.
Powers traveled south to Concord after playing the Great Allentown (Pa.) Fair, a spot where the threat of rain hurt the carnival more than actual precipitation, keeping people away, Powers said. As a result, ride grosses were down significantly in Allentown, he said.
Otherwise, things were going "gangbusters" this season until the carnival hit a lull for nine weeks with heat and rain, Powers said. It's the old saying, he said, when there's good weather, consumers are spending money.
The show set up 40 rides and attractions here. After the Cabarrus fair ended, Powers headed east, to county fairs in Salisbury and Goldsboro before moving to Raleigh for its biggest date of the season. This year, the calendar falls in such a way that Powers put a small unit in Burlington, N.C., a week before setting up in the capital city.
This is also the eighth year Powers has played the state fair. This year's dates are Oct. 17-27. The show holds the contract and will set up more than 100 rides in Raleigh, many of which will be provided by Frank Zaitshik's Wade Shows. Together, they work hand-in-hand to organize one of the most impressive midways in North America.
The Cape Fear Fair, Nov. 1-10, will be Powers' final event of the 2013 season as the carnival reduces its lineup to about 35 rides before easing into winter quarters in town. "It's like a day in the park compared with Raleigh," Powers said. "We don't open until late in the afternoon except for the weekend."
This year, Powers bought a new Falgas train ride, a Rock Star from ARM and a double Ferris wheel from Wisdom, a retrofit of an old Rampage re-themed as the Stampede. The double wheel can fit 48 people with both wheels facing the midway, Powers said. The manufacturer promised the piece would be delivered in Raleigh.
"We try to get a few new rides in there every year," he said.
In addition, the show's Ross Owens dark ride was completely redone with all new "tricks" and re-themed as the Haunted House. Judging from the continuous screams coming from inside the attraction at the Cabarrus fair, the renovation is winning over its customers. Powers also purchased 10 new trucks this year to keep the rolling stock moving efficiently.
The Powers family is fully invested in the show. Corky and Debbie Powers' son, Eddie and daughter Tracy, and their families owns rides and games. Corky Powers himself is a fourth-generation outdoor amusement businessman.
"My family never had rides, just games and food," Powers said. "I started in the early '80s and built this show from the ground up. We started in New York state but couldn't make it up there if we wanted to grow.
"At the same time, I told my kids we would take time off to enjoy ourselves," he said. "If you work 12 months a year it can be a struggle. We do what we can to live a normal lifestyle. We're off the road for four and a half months out of the year, so we can make plans for a movie or going out to dinner and not have to worry about the road."
The Powers' carnival "family" extends to a few husband and wife teams that own games, food and rides. Bob and Debbie McKnight own 50 concessions. Phil and Susie Corl own food and rides. Dean Corl, Phil's father, books his Cyclone Tunnel and Ship's Ahoy ride and manages the show office.
Steve Ianni, Powers Great American Midways' concessions manager, books 12 games with the show. Jeremy Thomas, assistant concessions manager, takes care of the second unit.
The list of key employees extends to a well-seasoned support crew of four NAARSO-certified inspectors and eight welders. Chief mechanic Bob Lyon is responsible for keeping the carnival's 55 trucks and 18 generators in working order.
The carnival recently hired former Virginia show owner Jeff Dean to head up its electrical department after losing an employee in the spring, Powers said. Dean had sold his show and tried a few other businesses, including running a convenience store, before returning to the outdoor amusement industry. Dean's wife Shelia and son Chris also work for Powers.
"Jeff has always been a friend and he seems to be real happy working here now," Powers said. "We have been looking for some younger people such as Jeff. The industry is aging and carnivals are having a hard time replacing the older folks."
Dave Bartossi, another new hire, is the carnival's shop foreman. Bartossi started working for Powers in March after spending 15 years with Rockwell Amusements. Before that, Bartossi owned his own trucking company. Ron Thomas, a NAARSO Level 2 ride inspector, handles the backgrounds checks and drug testing for potential employees.
"Between my family and the crew, they are the meat of the operation and they're the ones who make it happen," Powers said.
The commitment the carnival makes to its full-time employees is shown through the traveling school it provides for children of working parents. Years ago, several of the bigger shows ran educational programs but through industry consolidation over the years has greatly reduced the number of carnivals offering those educational programs.
To date, Powers Great American Midways and North American Midway Entertainment are the only shows employing full-time teachers, Powers said. The Powers school averages five to eight students, kindergarten through ninth grade. Their school date runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. There is no school on Sunday and Mondays when the show travels between spots.
"My daughter didn't want kids apart from their family so she put the school together," Powers said.
Seasonal help has been "phenomenal" this year, due in large part to the 40 Mexican nationals and half-dozen South Africans the show hires through its international labor program, he said. The carnival still has the same troubles other shows do dealing with the wage issues tied to using those workers but it's worth the hassle, according to Powers.
"We don't have to tell them to shave and get a haircut," he said. "Most of the Mexicans come back year after year and most of them understand English. They are conscientious too."
The carnival is a New York-based corporation and the state's laws require workers be paid overtime. In that respect, New York laws supercede federal law, Powers said. As a result, the carnival has cut its New York dates from 22 events due to the cost of business, he said.
In addition to North Carolina and New York, the show plays spots in Virginia, Connecticut and Maryland. Its lone date in Maryland, the Montgomery County Fair in Gaithersburg, is traditionally among the 50 to 60 top attended fairs in North America.
"We have been blessed and have certainly worked hard for it," Powers said. "The whole family puts their energy into it starting with my wife. We sleep it and eat it. We got to the point where we had so much equipment we needed better locations. To this point, we have a great route but we can always tweak it."