Weather a costly kink for fair operators

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 21, 2011

By Nathan Hardin
SALISBURY — With heavy rains and an empty parking lot, things looked bleak early Wednesday evening for employees and volunteers at the Rowan County Fair.
Inside the fair, a few were under tents, eating funnel cakes and corn dogs while water dripped from the stuffed animals hanging at nearby fair games.
But as the downpour stopped at about 6 p.m., people again began filing through the gate and started purchasing tickets.
Fair Manager Johnny Love called the fair “a weather-based” industry, but he said he’s glad the rain helps local farmers.
“The good part is right now farmers need rain,” he said.
But that didn’t make it any less frustrating for fair employees who rely on six full days of regular attendance to make a profit.
“You start off $125,000 in the hole — that’s roughly what it costs,” Love said. “And you sweat it out until you get at least enough to pay your bills.”
Love, who has been the fair’s manager for four years, said the fair usually doesn’t charge the public for entrance when it’s raining, to give those interested a chance to see the exhibits and meet with vendors.
“That’s business and life,” he said.
And it was business as usual when the sun came out shortly after.
That’s when fair employees began wiping concession stands, and ride custodians began dumping water out of the bucket seats in some rides.
The entertainment area, which has been contracted out to Powers Great American Midways for the past 18 years, has undergone upgrades in technology and safety, Powers’ marketing spokesman Charlie Belknap said Wednesday.
“You would see a remarkable difference if you looked at the fair 10 years ago than what you do now,” Belknap said.
The midway section has 34 rides and games, he said. Many of those have been upgraded to allow families to ride with small children, instead of just watching.
Belknap also said that despite the economy, fairs have done well because of their localization.
“People are staying close to home,” he said. “Instead of having people go to a destination, we bring the carnival to them.”
But Jonathan Brown, an employee at one of the fair’s games, said business is never as good in Rowan as other county fairs.
“I’ve made $2 tonight,” Brown said at about 8 p.m. “This is usually a $600 a night game. Every year, this place is a dead spot.”
Not so for fair patrons like Salisbury resident Jessica Phillips and her 6-year-old son, Chase, who seemed keen on squeezing in as many rides as possible before closing time.
“He’s not too concerned about anything but the rides,” Phillips said, laughing.
Phillips said she came, despite threats of rain, because there wouldn’t be as big of a crowd.
“I promised him we would come tonight,” she said. “He looked outside and saw that there was no rain and screamed, ‘Mom!’ ”
Concord resident Tola Rose and his son were also out at the fair and said they still enjoyed the experience.
“With the rain and everything, I really can’t complain,” Rose said.