Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 19 January 2010 19:16
After talking to carnival owners at the annual Kansas State Fairs and Festivals Association gathering earlier this month, local fair officials are convinced that attracting a carnival in the foreseeable future is as likely as harvesting wheat in January.
“We talked to four companies, and the combination of things we are up against are just overwhelming,” said Chuck McLinden, president of the Marion County Fair Board.
The reasons are almost as plentiful as the floating yellow ducks at one of those carnival games.
But it boils down to money.
“There aren’t enough carnivals to go everywhere, and we are not a big enough fair to generate the revenue that they need to operate,” McLinden said.
Carnivals covering costs
Because of liability insurance and high fuel prices, most carnivals won’t sign a contract without a local guarantee of $15,000 or more, McLinden said.
Meanwhile, the last time Marion County brought in a carnival—in 2007—the revenue generated in four days amounted to about $5,500.
“Based on the response from the Marion County Fair attendees in the last few years that we had a carnival, we know we are not going to generate enough revenue to keep a good carnival here,” McLinden said.
“We as a fair board do not have the budget ability to pay over and above what they gross to make up the minimum.”
The high cost of operating has driven several Kansas carnivals out of business in recent years.
“According to Toby’s Carnival (based in Arma), within the past year, six or seven carnival companies that operated last year have gone out of business,” McLinden said.
“Three or four years ago I talked to the very same man from Toby’s. He told me then that he would not even start his trucks for less than a $15,000 guarantee. Last year, when diesel was at $5 a gallon, it would have been $18,000.
“Now, he figured, it would take $16,000 guaranteed minimum just to show up. We don’t have that kind of money available to us.”
The loss of carnivals in Kansas has compounded the problem because local fairs have fewer options to choose from, and the carnivals that remain will sign with fairs that show the most profit potential.
Add to that the late-July date for the Marion County Fair is the busiest time of the year for Kansas carnivals.
“The last four days of July—that’s gold-rush time for them,” McLinden said. “Everybody is booked.
“We were told we could get a carnival, but we had to do two things: we had to come up with the money and we had to change our date to either late June, early July or move it late enough into August that school would have already started,” he said.
Moving the fair to early summer would make it difficult for exhibitors of crops and gardens to participate in the annual contests.
McLinden said the fair board feels locked in to its late-July schedule.
“Part of the reason we moved the fair forward (from early August) the past two years was because we’ve run into a problem—the fair ends on Saturday, and on Monday and Tuesday the kids are starting school,” he said. “And that’s a big headache.”
Another key scheduling consideration is the annual demolition derby—by far the fair’s biggest income generator, according to McLinden.
“Our fair lives and dies around the demolition derby,” he said. “And we have to work ours in when we can get the drivers there.”
Derbies at Herington and Canton and Newton all fall close to Marion County’s as it is.
“We’ve got to be careful so we’re not going the same time they are, which would be hurting not only our driver attendance but our spectator attendance,” McLinden said. “We feasibly can’t move (the fair dates).”
Changing youth culture
Another intangible factor working against the likelihood of having a successful carnival at small fairs is the changing entertainment interests of youth.
“We’re competing with PlayStation, Xbox, the Internet, 400-channel cable TV—and air conditioning and all that,” McLinden said. “We are fighting a battle that is stacked against us.”
He said he isn’t sure a small rural fair can offer anything that would attract the high-tech interests of today’s youth.
“In the past I have asked some of the teenagers I know from high school, ‘What do you think of the fair?’ If they weren’t in a show and weren’ in 4-H, they didn’t have a purpose to be there,” McLinden said. “And aside from demolition derby, there wasn’t anything there to pull them in.
“We are limited in what we can bring to them,” he added. “The texting contests are great big deals. But I’m not smart enough to know how to put one of them on—and the fact is by now that’s old news. That’s in the past.
“The thing I came away with after the (KFFA) convention this year is whatever the next big thing is at county fairs, it was not at the convention—we didn’t find it there. I’m not holding that against anybody, it’s just simply a fact.
“Everybody else in this fair business is in the same boat we are.”
Like other fairs, the local fair board has explored entertainment alternatives, according to McLinden.
Rodeos, such as the one that appears at the Marion County fair for two nights each year, are not money-makers unless they are sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and have national sponsors.
“We can’t afford to be PRCA sanctioned,” he said.
McLinden said the board has checked into hot-rod truck and tractor pulls, which require $10,000 to schedule.
“I think we could have made money with that, but the problem is the only place we could hold it is in the arena—but the track wouldn’t be long enough,” McLinden said.
“They need a 300-foot track. We’d have to run it out beyond the arena, and once you get out of the arena the dirt is not fit for a pulling track.”
Musical acts haven’t been financially successful either.
“The last act we had was six or seven years ago,” McLinden said. “It was a four-man group called Four for the Show. It cost us $3,500 and there were 10 people in the pavillion.”
Animal acts and petting zoos are financially prohibitive.
“We don’t know what else to try,” he said. “We’re in Hillsboro. It either has to be Mennonite-friendly, or gear-head friendly because if it doesn’t have a motor on it, (gear-heads) don’t care.”
As for the religious orientation of the community, “the last time the pavillion was full at a musical deal was when the Mennonite Men’s Chorus was there,” McLinden said.