Game of chance

That’s how Corky Powers won the State Fair midway contract. But will his fortune be tolled?
by Edward Martin

Gravel crunches underfoot as Corky Powers prowls the midway. In less than 24 hours, the Big Butler Fair will open. Off to one side, The Claw will beckon daredevils. On the other, the spinning teacups will spill children’s laughter. They are two of more than 40 rides he has brought here, their chrome and fresh paint sparkling in the haze that blurs the hills and vales of western Pennsylvania farm country. Storms are forecast.

That’s not good. Fairs need fair weather. Like hovering thunderclouds, Powers’ overhead looms — the rides, some costing half a million dollars or more; the fleet of 47 gleaming white trucks, including 20 semis, parked in a field nearby; the $50,000 payroll he must meet each week, rain or shine. Powers shrugs. “If I listened to the weather every day,” he says, “I’d shoot myself.”

Scanning the Butler County fairgrounds, 50 miles north of Pittsburgh in the Allegheny foothills, he can picture tomorrow’s crowd, the first of the 125,000 who’ll pour in from Beaver Falls, Slippery Rock, Cherry Valley and other hamlets and towns during its run. Nine days later, the show will close at midnight. By dawn, the midway will be dismantled, loaded on the trucks and rolling toward its next stop, like clockwork. “That’s because we’ve done it so many times.”

At 59, Powers has the easy manner of a man who has lived life on the road, weathering setbacks and enjoying successes one town at a time, one fair at a time. His business has grown like that, one ride at a time, from the three he started with in 1980 to the 54 he has now. They’re housed each winter in a sprawling complex at his headquarters in Burgaw, north of Wilmington in coastal Pender County.

This fair is one of about 3,200 held each year in the U.S. and Canada, according to the Springfield, Mo.-based International Association of Fairs and Expositions. The trade group has more than 2,500 members, including traveling carnivals like Powers Great American Midways, their vendors and the venues they play. His is one of the 10 largest carnivals. And now, after 26 years traveling the circuit, Leslie E. “Corky” Powers is ready for the big time: the North Carolina State Fair.

Drawing 700,000 to 800,000 people each year, it’s one of the largest and generally considered the best state fair in the nation. The money is massive. The state’s take: usually about $9 million, most of it from admission tickets and the fee the midway operator pays to be there. Based on public records and insider estimates, Powers Great American Midways could gross $4 million to $6 million during the fair’s nine-day run in October. What kind of margin a midway operator might make, nobody will say.

Livonia, Mich.-based W.G. Wade Shows had the contract last year. “I play more state fairs than any other carnival company in North America,” says Frank Zaitshik, its president, “and nothing — I say nothing — ever prepared me for playing it. It’s like going to the Super Bowl without ever having been there before. It’s the closest thing I play to a true state fair. There’s pride in it that you find no other place.” Tar Heels come farther — from each of the 100 counties in the state — stay longer and spend more than anybody else anywhere. And about 40% of those who come ride the rides.

In 2000, Orlando, Fla.-based Strates Shows sold $4.5 million of ride tickets. It had held the midway contract — without ever bidding on it — since 1948, but with Jim Graham set to retire after 36 years as agriculture commissioner, that would likely change. That year, the Democrats nominated Meg Scott Phipps to succeed him. She possessed a prize political pedigree: Her grandfather had been agriculture commissioner, governor — an office her father also held — and a U.S. senator.

The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs runs the fair, and, if she won, she would run the Agriculture Department. In what would turn into the state’s biggest political scandal in recent history, carnival operators funneled her at least $150,000, ostensibly to pay campaign costs. Some contributions, including those from Powers’ family, were legal; others were not. Strates would keep the contract another year, but one of her most generous benefactors — Monroe Township, N.J.-based Amusements of America — got it for 2002.

In October 2003, Phipps sat in Wake County Superior Court while a jury foreman read guilty verdicts against her on five state charges. A few weeks later, she pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to five federal charges. The federal judge fined her $25,000, then sent her away, a marshal leading her off in handcuffs. She’s serving four years in Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia.

Now, a muggy summer day finds Corky Powers checking last-minute details of the Big Butler Fair, Pennsylvania’s biggest. But this fall’s date in Raleigh will be the biggest of his career, five times the size of his previous biggest, the Mountain State Fair in Asheville in 2004 and 2005, which drew 140,000 people last year. The big time. He can thank Phipps’ clay feet and, something no carny likes having to rely on, his luck.

As the calendar turns to January 2006, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and Wesley Wyatt, who has managed the State Fair since 1997, are frustrated. Neither had been implicated, but the scandal has tainted the 153-year-old event, turning a cherished Tar Heel institution into potential political poison for anyone touching it.

In 2000, Phipps had defeated Troxler by a slim margin of 51% to 49% despite her massive lead in fundraising — $1.1 million to his $22,400. But the Republican Guilford County farmer would bounce back in 2004, beating Britt Cobb, whom Democratic Gov. Mike Easley had appointed interim agriculture commissioner after Phipps resigned. Even that had been controversial. Cobb had waited three months to concede while lawyers battled over some 4,000 ballots that had been lost in Carteret County.

Drawing Powers’ name from a cup, the agriculture commissioner made him an offer: Take it or leave it.

In her brief tenure, Phipps had broken not only the law but tradition by throwing open the fair contract to bids. Many, including most in the carnival industry, thought it was an overdue step in the right direction. But instead of paying the state a percentage of the take on rides, games and concessions, operators now have to pay a fixed fee for each person who comes through the gate, with the high bidder getting the contract.

Strates won it in 2003 by agreeing to pay $6.50 per ticket holder. It won’t comment, but rivals say that was too much — in effect, it was trying to buy back the business it had held so long. The next year, Reithoffer Shows, based in Gibsonton, Fla., got it with a bid of $5.811/2 per person. In 2005, Wade Shows won with $5.911/2. “I made some money,” Zaitshik says, “but it certainly wasn’t a fair rate of return on $30 million worth of equipment and considering the vulnerability of the weather.”

Troxler and Wyatt have a revolt on their hands. Fred Rosen, president of Los Angeles-based North American Midway Entertainment, has told them they are “in the process of killing the fair” by demanding that operators pay too much. Another new wrinkle: Starting this year, the con- tract will be for three years rather than one. By early January, only one bid has come in: Wade Shows offers $3 per head, barely half what it had paid a year earlier. “That wasn’t acceptable,” says Brian Long, an Agriculture Department spokesman. “It wasn’t even close.” So Troxler and Wyatt cook up an alternative.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 17, Troxler calls Wyatt and counsel David McCloud to his office. It’s either this — his plan — or the department has to start cobbling together its own midway, calling on numerous operators to provide rides. The fair typically has more than 100. Nobody barks, “Step right up,” but Ag officials are about to operate their own game of chance. They scribble the names of five prequalified carnivals — North American, Strates, Wade, Reithoffer and Powers Great American — on scraps of paper that Troxler folds and drops in a red plastic cup Wyatt has found.

They had calculated that $5.50 a head would be fair, betting one of the five would break ranks to pay it. That fee would earn the state $3.5 million to $4 million, maybe more. They throw in a couple of sweeteners. The state would knock off 10 cents each for up to two new blockbuster rides brought in to goose the gate, which could cut the fee to $5.30. And the operator won’t have to pay the fee for the thousands who get in free on Military Day. No negotiations. The first to accept the terms would win the contract.

But who gets first crack at it? “The commissioner held the cup above his head, reached in and pulled out a name,” Wyatt says. It’s late in the day. They’ll start calling the next morning in the order that the names are drawn. Written on the first slip: Powers Great American Midways.

The ascending winter sun finds Powers winding through the Pennsylvania mountains on his way to a meeting of that state’s county-fair association in Hershey. His cell phone rings. “Corky,” he blurts in his clipped accent. Interference jumbles the connection. Troxler ... North Carolina ... fair contract ... It’s 9:30 a.m.

Powers calls back 15 minutes later when he finds a stronger signal. Troxler spells out the terms. You have one hour to let us know. If the answer is no, we go to the next name. “We weren’t trying to be ugly to the carnivals or trying to pressure them,” Wyatt says. “We were prepared to go through this all day. But we just wanted to get the job done.” The clock begins ticking. At 10:25, Powers calls back. The answer is yes.

It’s the morning of opening day of the Big Butler Fair, six months later. Dew sparkles on Corky Powers’ rides. The gates will open at 1. A loudspeaker from one of the rides sputters, then zydeco bursts forth. Ma ’tite fille ... It’s bouncy, happy music — midway music — but in the $300,000 motor home that is Powers’ mobile office and command center, staff members wince. “Jeez,” one grumbles, “we’ve heard that a thousand times.”

Greater Raleigh CVB

Powers is at home here, north of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of Lake Erie. His parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all worked the fairs of western New York, operating food concessions, games “and all the old carnival stuff you saw 50 years ago.” Born and reared in Rochester, he went to work for Caterpillar after graduating from high school in 1966, rising to service manager of the forklift division there. Buying three rides in 1980, he worked them part time and, by 1984, figured he had to choose between Cat and the carnival. It was easy. “This takes a certain breed,” he says, squinting into the morning sun. “You learn to love it. It’s in our hearts.”

Powers joined a new breed of carnies. Fairs, as markets for merchandise and commodities, date to ancient Rome and, in North Carolina, to the Colonial era. Though the emphasis was on trade, socializing and agricultural and homemaking competitions, even early fairs offered carnival attractions such as sideshows — as well as drinking, gambling, brawling and other less savory diversions. By the turn of the century, the modern midway, combining food, rides, shows and games, began taking shape, spurred by the introduction of the Ferris wheel at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

Carnivals, traveling from fair to fair, provided a kind of excitement found nowhere else, an exotic, if fleeting, once-a-year escape from the humdrum of rural life. In doing so, they changed the nature of the events themselves. The North Carolina State Fair, more than most, maintains its rustic roots. But by the latter half of the 20th century, it, like the state, no longer was the refuge of rubes. The hootchy-kootchy and freak shows that had supplemented the apple-pie and handmade-quilt competitions were, in turn, supplanted by the mechanical marvels of the new midway.

“If all the N.C. State Fair had now was a livestock show, you can bet it wouldn’t be attracting 700,000 visitors,” says Max Willis, chief operating officer of the fair association. It’s the same with fairs, large and small, all across the country. “It’s no longer the only show in town. The rides have to be faster and more exciting. Most people can get to a theme park in a couple of hours, so the bigger, the better.” Fairs that can’t compete die, as scores have nationwide. The Caswell County Fair closed last year after attracting only about 2,000 people over five days.

This change means Powers has to run a business that in many ways resembles the old carny life of his forebears about as much as derivatives trading does tarot-card reading. Not only is it labor- and capital-intensive, but he must be a master of logistics and the most minute detail, any of which might make the difference between riches and ruin. And nobody can control the weather. He has 85 people on his payroll and close to 200 subcontractors who run games and other attractions. When the show is on the road, he is effectively mayor, CEO and ringmaster. He estimates his investment in equipment and rides — conservatively, and the figure has to be pried out of him — at well over $10 million. “We accumulated equipment on an annual basis. At first, we couldn’t compete for a lot of the hundred-year-old East Coast fairs, but when it started to happen, it was almost like a whirlwind. We began getting great locations.”

Powers began working Tar Heel fairs in 1988, the state’s mild spring and fall allowing him to stretch his season. In 1993, he and partner Bob Gillis bought 20 acres in Burgaw and moved their headquarters there. He bought out Gillis three years later and moved his own family to Wilmington in 1997. More than a dozen relatives, including his three sons and daughter, followed. All of his children and their spouses work with him, as does his wife, who also is his business partner.

It’s not the old carny life. “Some won’t travel with us,” Powers says, “because they think we have too many rules.”

In Burgaw, 15 employees toil year-round in four shops with more than 12,000 square feet, rebuilding and maintaining rides and other equipment. That allows him to minimize capital costs. Though he pays $1,000 a day for $10 million of insurance, none of his rides ever has been involved in a fatal accident. About four years ago, a suicidal Jacksonville man leaped from a gondola ride 60 feet in the air. “I thought he was dead,” Powers says. “He lived, and his family sued us.” They lost.

Jonathan Brooks, who heads the N.C. Department of Labor division that inspects rides, says Powers Great American gets cited less than the average for carnivals. “Their winter quarters are here in North Carolina, so when he strips them down, they call us and ask if we want to come and look. They bend over backwards to cooperate.”

The carnival begins its circuit in Eastern North Carolina in March, then heads north to spend the summer in Virginia, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania before returning to North Carolina in the fall. Especially during the first half of his season, before the big county and regional fairs, he splits the carnival into the Light Blue and Dark Blue units to play smaller venues, including community festivals and shopping centers.

At the Big Butler Fair, they’re back together. Scores of motor homes and trailers occupy a shady grove behind the midway. Lawn chairs sprawl; grills smoke. In a small trailer on the back of the lot, with an American flag on the door and crayon drawings on the walls, children of carnival workers go to a school that travels with the show.

This is not the carnival of old, staffed by scruffy drifters scarier than the haunted-house ride. On the midway, all personnel wear yellow golf shirts embroidered with a Powers Great American Midways logo and an ID tag. They can’t smoke. The number of tattoos and body piercings they can bare is limited. No dangling earrings — for men or women. “Some won’t travel with us because they think we have too many rules,” Powers says.

His labor cost will rise this fall in Raleigh. Last year, Wade Shows, which usually employs about 300, had to boost its payroll to 1,000, straining its capacity to find help. “The answer for us,” Zaitshik says, “was foreign workers.” With fuel prices soaring, it’s expensive to move equipment hundreds of miles each week and then keep running it after setting up. That cost, too, will skyrocket in October. “At the State Fair, instead of running four electric generators as usual, we’ll be running 25,” Powers says. “I know for a fact the fuel bill there last year was for $121,000.”

To get the 20-cent discount on his head fee, Powers will bring two new rides to the fair — The Twister and Freak Out. Such rides, usually imported from Europe, cost at least $500,000 each. He’ll have to make the bulk of his revenue at $3.50 to $4.50 a clip, the typical price of a ride ticket. He’ll tap other carnival companies for help staging the midway and augmenting the number of rides. Wade Shows will be a major subcontractor, paying Powers Great American for the privilege.

Powers also will become temporary landlord for scores of vendors, from civic clubs selling ham biscuits to traveling games. Their rent will vary, depending on location and size. A 20-foot balloon-game trailer, for instance, might command $6,000 or more for the nine-day fair. There will be as many as 150 concessions.

As the summer heat starts to build in Pennsylvania, Powers checks his midway. “We’ll have 100-plus rides in Raleigh. That’s double this one. But we can do it. We’ll make money. I’m sure of that.” His walkie-talkie crackles.

The gates open. Cars drive in. Under the tin roof of the exhibition shed, women of the Butler County Grange sell cookbooks. The Ferris wheel turns slowly. At Hogway Speedway, a speaker blares Salty Dog Blues. Two dozen spectators watch Brant Cook, a subcontractor from Catawba County, start his first pig race of the day, the pigs bearing names and numbers of NASCAR drivers. The North Carolina State Fair, the big time for Corky Powers, is months off. In Pennsylvania, the skies look threatening, but his luck holds. It doesn’t rain.