Wineka column: Corky Powers is king of the midway

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 13, 2012

By Mark Wineka
CONCORD – Corky Powers is the mayor, the man, the boss.
His walkie-talkie is always crackling at him with familiar voices, wanting him to make a decision or asking him what to do next.
Powers thrives on this stress of being pulled in every direction. He’s a master of logistics and as good a weatherman as any farmer.
Chugging back and forth across the fairgrounds in his Kubota utility cart, Powers builds his midway one ride, food trailer and game vendor at a time.
But Les “Corky” Powers would rather talk about family – how his wife, their four children, the kids’ spouses, six grandchildren, nieces and nephews are involved in Powers Great American Midways.
In all, 19 family members live this demanding carnival life.
“It’s a passion for us,” Corky says. “You either love it or you leave it.”
This week, Powers Great American Midways is set up at the Cabarrus County Fair. When the fair closes Saturday night, the escape-from-reality midway Powers created will be torn down, loaded and trucked to the Rowan County Fairgrounds.
Starting Sunday, the crews who work for Powers will unload, build and position much of the same equipment again for the Rowan County Fair’s opening Monday night.
They’ll know where rides go because Corky Powers or his son Eddie will have marked the spots on the ground with lines of orange spray paint.
Corky Powers started in this business 32 years ago with three rides.
Now he has 58 rides, 350 people on the payroll, a fleet of 50 trucks, an expansive year-round shop and multi-million-dollar insurance coverage.
Powers also is the midway operator for the N.C. State Fair, one of the best state fairs in the country. In each of the past two years, the State Fair has drawn more than a million people during its run in October.
For that event – his biggest – Powers brings in other operators and creates four different midways with a total of 110 rides, not counting the food concessions, games and sideshows, for which Powers essentially acts as landlord.
Powers uses some of the county fairs in North Carolina, such as those in Cabarrus and Rowan counties, as stepping stones toward the State Fair in Raleigh.
“It takes them all,” Powers says of putting together a year of events, including this fall season in North Carolina. “It’s all about logistics, too,”
Though it may seem small compared to the State Fair in Raleigh or the Great Allentown Fair in Pennsylvania, the Rowan County Fair will still have 30-plus rides, Powers adds.
Overall, Powers’ Rochester, N.Y.-based operation goes to carnivals and fairs in seven states from New York to North Carolina.
A Rochester native, Powers represents the fourth generation of his family involved in this business. His children are the fifth. Corky’s great-grandparents, grandparents and parents worked rides, food concessions and games at the fairs and carnivals of western New York State.
Starting with Caterpillar
Though he grew up with the carnival life, Corky Powers started a career instead with Caterpillar because, he says, he had a love for equipment. He became a service manager for the forklift division.
But he couldn’t shed his passion for carnivals and began working his three rides on a part-time basis starting in 1980.
By 1984, he made the life-altering decision to leave his job at Caterpillar and go into the amusement business full-time with partner Bob Gillis.
The men kept adding rides and people. By 1988, they were working some N.C. fairs. He and Gillis also bought 20 acres in Burgaw by 1993 and made it into a winter quarters for storing, repairing and refurbishing equipment.Powers bought out his partner in 1997. Today Corky’s wife, Debbie, serves as the company’s vice president and “jack of all trades,” he says.
‘Best days’
The operation also has been divided into two units – the Dark Blue and Light Blue units – so Powers Great American Midways has more flexibility in scheduling events large and small.
Eddie Powers heads up the Light Blue Unit; Corky, the Dark Blue.
“These are my best days,” Eddie Powers says while trying to maneuver the Gondola Wheel into position at the Cabarrus County Fairgrounds.
The carnival life is in his blood, and every day and each event always seem to present new challenges, Eddie says. “This is what we do,” he adds. “This is how we make a living.”
With an operation this big, the Powers family has to provide living quarters for its employees. Those accommodations include motor homes and 10-room bunk-house trailers, complete with hot water.
The housing and a commissary to feed the crews is set up on the perimeter of the various fair sites. The family also has a full-time teacher and mobile school and spacious mobile offices.
Payday shuttle ride
Powers Great American Midways uses four 15-passenger vans to shuttle employees to Walmart every payday so they can buy groceries.
The vans also are used each Wednesday to take employees to local laundromats.
Powers requires drug tests and does criminal background checks on his midway employees. He doesn’t allow smoking on the midway or employee eating at the food concessions.
He has a dress code and limits the number of tattoos and jewelry for workers.
On the midway, Powers likes tall rides for a more spectacular look. Rides, many of them engineered and built in Europe, can have costs ranging from $200,000 to $1 million.
In kiddie rides, Powers prefers those having room for a parent to ride along.
As for side shows, Powers classifies the ones out there as “the good, the bad and the ugly.” He says he chooses sideshows that are family-oriented and show no disrespect to humans or animals.
What started out with three rides has now evolved into names such as Alien Abduction, Freak Out, Mulligan’s Wheel, Ring of Fire, Mind Blaster, Swing Buggy, Vertigo and Sky Diver.
They come with bright and energy-efficient LED lighting, sound effects, scenery and often the screams of excited riders.
Powers could light a small city with the generators he has on hand.
Beyond payroll and machinery, much of Powers’ expense comes in safety inspection fees and transportation costs.
The N.C. Department of Labor sends in inspectors for each fair, every week, and charges a fee to inspect every ride. It’s the most expensive state in that regard, Corky Powers notes. In New York, for example, the inspectors examine the rides once in a season and charge $100 per inspection.
Sometimes Powers feels as though he’s in the moving business more than the carnival business. He has welders, mechanics, a transportation manager and trucking coordinator.
“We pay for every mile we drive,” Powers says of extra state and federal taxes.
Just moving the equipment and people from Allentown to Concord – one of the longer trips the operation makes during the summer – cost $65,000 in fuel.
Powers Great American Midways has been the midway provider at the N.C. State Fair since 2006. Until then, its largest fair had been the N.C. Mountain State Fair in Asheville.
Dollar for dollar, the state fair in Raleigh has to be among the top five in the nation, Powers says. The people who attend that fair simply love rides, food and games, he says.
When it comes down to it, they sound a lot like the Powers family. Corky, 65, promises he and his family will be building midways as long as they can.
“We love it,” he says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or .