ST. PAUL, MINN. --- Jim Sinclair is not a carnival owner but he stands as one of the industry's most important operators.
Sinclair, deputy manager of the Minnesota State Fair, oversees the Mighty Midway, an independent midway that typically grosses in the neighborhood of $6 million annually. It's a marquee event that draws some of the best rides and attractions in North America. Sinclair, as he has done over the past 22 years, manages the midway that this year features 61 rides and 47 games.
Those numbers are on par with the past few years after state fair officials decided to shrink the size of the midway and reduce the number of overall rides. When the fair converted to an independent midway in 1995, it was pushing 70 rides. Several years later, the fair conducted a study that showed there were "more seats than butts to put in them," and made the decision to book fewer rides.
Officials moved the back of the midway forward by 100 feet and cut rides, resulting in greater efficiency among the existing rides and putting more money in the pockets of the operators. The adjustment also freed up more space to store support equipment.
"Everything now becomes a question of space," Sinclair said. "I have people calling me about an opportunity to bring a new ride. New ride? It's a matter of space. For the most part, we've avoided duplication of rides and that's been good."
What is new this year is the Charlie Chopper, a kid helicopter ride owned by Family Entertainment, a company formed by Richard Tinsley and Kenneth Bender. On its own, Tinsley Amusements, a separate company, booked five rides at the Kidway, separate from the Mighty Midway.
In addition, Steve Vander Vorste brought his Flipper, a Huss product, back to Minnesota for the first time since 2012, Sinclair said. All told, there are 25 ride operators at this year's fair.
The fair books a mix of operators running full-scale carnivals such as Reithoffer Shows, Alamo Amusements and Gopher State Expositions, plus smaller independent ride owners including Michael Wood, Mike Demas, Jeff Brady, Rio Cristiani and Tom and Michael Lauther. Ride manufacturers going out on the road such as Kyle Wisdom are also part of the mix.
Thirteen game operators are represented at this year's fair, consistent with recent years. Kim Oren's Lean and Toss is the one new game at the 2016 event.
Separately, the fair conducted an online survey through social media channels, and John Magel's Roll-A-Ball Derby was selected by participating voters as the most popular game, Sinclair told local television station WCCO.
The games operation has also gone through a revamp, according to Sinclair. For years, there's been a misconception that game revenue was down at the state fair but that has not been the case, he said.
At the same time, though, officials have implemented some new guidelines to simplify the process for distributing prices to provide greater value for the customer and "throw more stock" to generate more winners.
At the Minnesota State Fair, games run on tickets and the fair extends daily promotions to include games with fewer tickets required to play them.
"The rules have evolved over time," Sinclair said. "We want more winners. The public responds to that."
The fair has been going through the process of re-branding the Mighty Midway, replacing older flags, ticket boxes and park benches with newer logos. A new midway information booth
"It's something we continue to do," he said. "We've been cautious about making any wholesale changes that cost the operators a lot of money. Over the years, we've changed canvas two to three times. We've changed uniforms more frequently."
The individual operators buy the canvas themselves after the fair supplies the colors and design specifications. The fair produces the uniforms and sells them at the same price it costs the fair to produce them, Sinclair said.
Add Sinclair to the long list of proponents of the H2B visa program tied to international labor. Many foreign workers work the state fair through the operators that employ them and they're vital to the amusement industry in general, Sinclair said.
"It's a great program for many reasons," he said. "Part of that is the focus on the guest experience. I'm not sure all fairs recognize their importance. The fair itself doesn't employ them but our partners do and the program has helped raise the bar on the quality of worker at the fair."
Along those lines, Sinclair supports the OABA's move to upgrade mobile housing standards by improving the quality of bunkhouses for international workers. It's important to provide them with good accommodations in return for their hard work, he said.
Sinclair has had a long and successful run at the fair. He's been there 41 years. His first day on the job was Feb. 16, 1975. When he first started, his job was to put Heritage Square together as part of the fair's celebration of America's Bicentennial in 1976. It was an early American themed space. It was torn down a few years ago and replaced by the West End Market.
He was promoted to concessions manager in his third year at the fair and worked his way up to upper management over the years to become one of the industry's most respected figures.
"We are stewards of the event and the facility while we're here," Sinclair said, referring to the overall operation headed by general manager Jerry Hammer. "Our job is to leave the place better than we've found it."