In a few days, Fairbanks Alaska will be the setting for what might be called Fair Wars as two midways a mere four miles apart compete for riders.
Not content to merely accept the loss of its long-term midway contract to the Tanana Valley State Fair, which runs August 1-9, Golden Wheel Amusements, which has had up until now what most consider a monopoly over Alaskan midways, will hold its first Summer Spectacular from July 25 to Aug. 3 at the Ice Alaska park, also in Fairbanks.
Acrimony & Midways
Two midways in one town at the same time is causing heated acrimony in America's far north. "We don't think it is ethical for the fair (ed: carnival), who was with us a for a long time and made a lot of money with the Tanana Valley State Fair, to go against the fair like this," said Joyce Whitehorn, general manager, Tanana Valley State Fair.
Whitehorn added that she feels the Summer Spectacular is retaliation by Golden Wheel Amusements against the fair for awarding its 2014 contract to A-1 Midway. "They are out to get us, they said so in the papers," she said.
Chase Eckert, spokesman for the family-own-and-run golden Wheel Amusements, can understand the bruised feelings resulting from the announcement of the Summer Spectacular, but is upset over the allegations that question the ethics of the largest midway provider in Alaska.
"Obviously we feel they made the wrong decision in not bringing us back for the 2014 fair, and we hope someday to be back with the fair. But we were with the fair for 38 years, we love the fair. My grandma brought the first midway that ever was at the Tanana Valley Fair."
He added, "we have nothing against the Tanana Valley Fair or the fair board or A-1 Midway."
In fact, Eckert feels their presence in Fairbanks during this time of the year is all about the community. "We have families there who have worked for us every summer, they depend on those wages," he said. "You can see the prices of our events, they are very affordable and we work closely with churches and community organizations. It is disheartening to hear the things being said about us."
In March, the Tanana Valley Fair board announced the end of their contract with Golden Wheel Amusements - which had been providing the Tanana Valley midway since the 1960s - and awarded the midway contract to A-1 Midway, from Manitoba, Canada.
Mike Mills, founder of A-1 Midway, expected that entering the American market may would not be without obstacles, but having a midway go head-to-head with its former client was unexpected.
"It is a shot at both of us, A-1 Midway and the Tanana Valley Fair" said Mills. "Golden Wheel Amusements thinks they have everything in Alaska tied up, and if they take money away from the fair, or if they split away money from the fair's midway, then it is not enough of a financial reason to warrant me coming to the states. I think it is pretty unethical to hurt the fair, to take money from the fair, after more than 30 years of making money with the fair."
What is particularly irksome to Mills is not that Golden Wheel Amusements in playing Fairbanks, but the timing of the event. Mills criticizes the company's timing for "predating and over-lapping the fair. They could have played Fairbanks at a different time. They could have filled a void in the community. Instead, they are starting their own fair, and all the money they make will go into their pockets, instead of going into the community. It is unethical."
Mills added, "They are trying to get me out of there, and maybe I would do the same thing if I was in their position, but I wouldn't go out of my way to hurt the fair. I don't know of any other carnival who would. They haven't had competition in more than 30 years and they were being too high on the hog and think they can dictate to fairs. If you lose a contract bid, you get other business then try again next time. You don't try to hurt the fair."
Mills however is intent on looking at the silver lining within this dark cloud of Alaska fair politics. Mills feels his company got a unintended boost from the Summer Spectacular."I've been practically assured that I will get a long term contract," he said. Some of the rides his midway will feature include a 102-foot Chance Sling Shot, an Inverter, Zipper, Space Sled and Ferris Wheel.
"Competition just makes us better," Mills said. "I was content on playing Fairbanks. This just makes me want to be the better midway."
According to Whitehorn, the Tanana Valley Fair accrued other benefits than different rides from a contract with a new Midway provider. "We were limited to 45 outside vendors. Golden Wheel brought in all their food and game booths. Now we are going to have lots of other vendors, and more commercial vendors. We will have over 300 vendors."
But in town where the fair was the annual extravaganza that united the community, the Summer Spectacular by GoldenWheel Amusements is now dividing the town. Like the state fair, Ice Alaska is a non-profit outdoor facility. There's now bad blood between these two local nonprofits, for which Whitehorn blames Golden Wheel Amusements. "It is not ethical to have two nonprofits go against each other," said Whitehorn.
The Golden Wheel Amusement Summer Spectacular will be the first summer event held at Ice Alaska, famous for hosting the annual World Ice Art Championships - a competitive celebration of icecarving - each February/March. "This is the first try for a summerevent for us," said Hoa Brickley, Business Manager, Ice Alaska.
According to Brickley, Golden Wheel Amusements contacted them with a proposal to host their new event. "Golden Wheel Amusements called us in March when they lost the contract for the fair," said Brickley. "We were able to make a deal. We are leasing them the land. We are just making a little extra income. Everybody can use a little extra income."
Brickley emphasized that the involvement of Ice Alaska is merely as landlord. "We are not making any decisions, we have nothing to do with the fair," she said. "Golden Wheel has been doing this for more than 30 years, they're experienced. We cannot tell them what to do, we are only leasing the land."
The timing of the Summer Spectacular to precede and overlap with the Tanana Valley Fair was coincidental, Eckert claims. They were the only open dates during the company's hectic summer schedule. "The reason we are in Fairbanks at this time is this is when our calendar was open," he said. "Everyone we have ever worked with in the state would agree that we have nothing but the highest ethics."
He also emphasized that the event will be distinct enough to avoid confusion with the Tanana Valley Fair. "It is not a fair, if anything it is a spectacular party for the community," he said. "We will have 25 rides, about double what we've had at the fair, simply because we have more space now. This will be the event we always wanted to have."
Entertainment for the spectacular will include two Christian Music concerts, the Rotten Brothers' sideshow, Skateboarder Tim Byrne, and Masa Suzjuki, a Free Running Artist from Japan who has appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
With two midways, Alaskans will have more midway options than ever before. The question that will be answered is if the area can sustain two midways in at the same time?
"We welcome competition," said Whitehorn. "But the fair is the fair, and it is a lot more than Golden Wheel Amusements. There's not much we can do about it except put on the best fair we can."
But even after both midways are broken down, the negative fallout from the Fairbanks Fair Wars will likely remain.