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NAME eyes large sports venues as potential spots for specials events


By Don Muret

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COLUMBIA, S.C. ---- North American Midway Entertainment already boasts one of the best routes in North America, but officials are always on the lookout for new events, according to Tony Diaz, head of the carnival's international unit.

Diaz, in between discussions over how his beloved Tampa Bay Buccaneers can right themselves after a shaky start to the NFL season, said he keeps an eye on sports and entertainment venues as potential spots for special events.

The veteran showman points to two longtime fairs tied to arenas in the Gulf Coast as examples of how carnivals can grow business by forming partnerships with those facilities.

The Cajun Heartland Fair next to the Cajundome in Lafayette, La. and the annual Summer Fair outside the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi, Miss. are two events that have been going on for about 30 years, Diaz said.

NAME books both events that started with carnivals run by the old Bill Dillard Shows. Diaz grew up working for that carnival before moving on to Farrow Shows, and eventually, North American Midway Entertainment.

The same is true for the Oak Mountain Amphitheater in Pelham, Ala., outside of Birmingham. Live Nation, the biggest event promoter in North America, runs the outdoor music venue. For the past four years, it has run the Oak Mountain State Fair in the facility's parking lot.

To drive attendance and help boost foot traffic on North American's midway in Alabama, the promoter books free entertainment in the amphitheater and a secondary stage, Diaz said.

In addition to those dates, Diaz feels Sporting Park, a 4-year-old Major League Soccer stadium in Kansas City, Kan., is a prime candidate to launch a fair tied to a carnival and agricultural activities.

The facility sits in the middle of the large retail and entertainment district in Greater Kansas City, a market with no true fair to speak of, Diaz said. It's next door to the Kansas Speedway, a racetrack that plays host to NASCAR events. A minor league ballpark sits up the street.

In addition, the Nebraska Furniture Mart, a giant retail store owned by billionaire Warren Buffett across the street from the soccer stadium, is one of Kansas' most popular tourist destinations.

Diaz has not had any discussions with Sporting Park officials about booking a carnival there but he sees great potential at a major crossroads in mid-America as NAME seeks to grow business.

"When the buildings come into play, those are the opportunities we look for," Diaz said. "It's an opportunity for all parties involved to maximize their assets. Those venues have a specific use for a certain portion of the year and we can come in and help fill some otherwise empty dates."

Hitching their wagon to sports facilities calls to mind the old Super Fairs held at indoor NFL stadiums such as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the long-gone RCA Dome.

Before he consolidated his Chicago carnivals as part of NAME, Jeff Blomsness, the show's co-owner, used to book equipment inside the Indianapolis Colts' old stadium.

These days, North American Midway still plays an indoor date at the I-X Center in Cleveland, next to the city's airport. Danny Huston, Blomsness' business partner, brings his Mid-America unit there to play the month-long event.

The large exhibition hall is big enough for NAME to set up its roller coaster and flume rides. "It might be the biggest indoor fair in the country," Diaz said. "The format still works."

Here at the South Carolina State Fair, the midway consisted of rides provided in large part by All-Star Amusements, the name of Blomsness' Chicago operation, as well as Southeast Amusements, formerly Conklin Shows, which held the contract in Columbia for many years.

The operation in South Carolina featured some spectacular concessions such as the Whopper water game provided by Bob's Space Racers. NAME is the only carnival, with exception to the Independent Midway at the Minnesota State Fair, where the Florida games manufacturer books its own equipment, something it's been doing now for 38 years, NAME officials said.

To summarize the 2014 season, the Eastern States Exposition stood out for setting an attendance and midway sales record, Diaz said. The middle Saturday of the fair drew 176,000 patrons.

Top-notch entertainment and unusually warm weather in New England on the final weekend of September gave a boost to the event.

In fact, weather for the entire summer held well, especially for the show's Canadian run at events such as the Calgary Stampede, the Red River Exhibition and the Canadian National Exhibition, Diaz said.

For next year, NAME picked up the Western Fair in London, Ont., after signing a 10-year contract. The fair previously ran an independent midway.

The property holds an ice rink, a casino and a racetrack and officials felt their energies could be better spent on running those venues and leave the fair's carnival operation to a specialist, Diaz said.

NAME plans to set up a 50-ride unit at the Western Fair. For the past three years, the carnival has booked equipment as part of the independent lineup, including its Blitzer, Remix and Euro Slide.

Another adjustment to the 2015 route involves the Dade County Youth Fair in Miami. Next year, the event, NAME's first major fair of the season, expands to four weekends. As an urban fair, it closes on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the carnival agreed with the decision.

"We can draw more down there on Saturday and Sunday than early in the week," Diaz said.

In South Carolina, Blomsness kept busy taking fair board members' children on a midway tour to play complimentary games with prizes for everyone. The fair principals and their families get more out of that piece of hospitality compared with handing over a "truckload of plush," Blomsness said.

Blomsness, proving his versatility as a showman, also jumped in a small lemonade stand to distribute cold drinks on a warm day in mid-October.

As the season winds down with a few Florida dates, NAME has a capital expenditures budget that it will draw from to make some purchases of new equipment, Blomsness said. To this point, no decisions have been made, he said.

The carnival has a new winter quarters location in Gibsonton, Fla. that it bought from carnival operator Bobby Pugh. In a city known for residents parking concession trailers on their front yards, the 15-acre property is one of the only places in town "where you can get proper zoning," Blomsness said.

The Gibsonton lot joins other NAME shops and storage spaces in Farmland, Ind., McAllen, Texas, Crystal Lake, Ill. and Jackson, Miss.

NAME's Jeff Blomsness helping serve lemonade

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