Many midways across the nation may not survive the pandemic without government support, ultimately impacting the success of rural fairs, says Andrew Gidaro, director of operations at Astro Amusements.
Astro Amusements mainly operates in and around the GTA doing street festivals. The company is also one of the largest independent concession operators at the annual Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) and also produces some of its own events.
Gidaro is also the director of the Canadian Association of Amusement Operations (CAAO). While Gidaro said the group wasn’t formed because of COVID-19, its membership numbers grew rapidly when the virus began impacting the country in March.
“Now we’re over 110 members. What started out to be an association that was going to be specific just to Ontario, we’re now a national organization,” he said.
The industry is seasonal, Gidaro said. “We start for the most part in May, and then we end Thanksgiving weekend. But for carnival companies, once our season is over in October, it’s not like we just put these rides away and go live some lavish lifestyle. There’s obviously a ton of upkeep and maintenance that’s required, especially with all the intense safety regulations in the province and the country,” he said.
A lot of money is spent over the winter months on repairs and to purchase new rides to ensure the most modern attractions are brought to fairs to keep them exciting for people, said Gidaro.
“Had someone given us some kind of warning last year in October when we were finishing up the season that this was coming our way in March, everyone would have just held onto their money and waited for the following year, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case,” he said.
Most midway companies had already spent a lot of money and time to prepare for the 2020 season, said Gidaro.
“And then in March, the season slowly looked like it disappeared in front of us, and now we’re right back to almost October again. You know, it’s a struggle for a lot of people,” he said. “With zero per cent income now, and it looks like we’ll be lucky if we’re out next May, that’s 18 months without a dollar of revenue.”
For a lot of operators, their annual revenue is used to put food on the table, Gidaro said.
“We’re family-based businesses; I’m second generation. And that’s the storyline of the entire industry. When there’s no money for the business, there’s no money for us personally,” he said.
Although he believes the government has done a great job with creating programs for businesses, Gidaro said, the programs aren’t helping their industry.
“The wage subsidy is fantastic, but it’s meant for businesses that have lost 30 to 40 per cent of their revenue, or who were shut down for a month or two, and we don’t have any staff so it’s not helping us at all trying to get back on our feet,” he said.
The same goes for the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loan, Gidaro said.
“The $40,000, that was nice, and the majority of our members took advantage of that program, but I mean, after going 18 months with zero income, $40,000 doesn’t help. We have a lot of ongoing expenses,” he said.
Some of those expenses include storage fees and insurance, he said.
A lot of people in the industry are driving trucks or driving for Uber Eats or Amazon just to make ends meet to survive, said Gidaro.
“But if we miss another season next year, it’s a real possibility that without some kind of help from the government that some businesses are going to go under,” he said.
Carrie Robertson of Albion Amusements said the company has been part of the Norwood Fair for about 50 years.
“The fairs and the rides and amusements almost go hand-in-hand,” she said.
As Robertson has seen in the past, if a fair can’t get a midway, the fair will continue to diminish, until it can no longer survive.
Gidaro said the CAAO has had lots of meeting with government.
“Both ministers’ offices and members of Parliament, and it’s gone pretty well,” he said.
Gidaro said last week’s Throne Speech highlighted a lot of things members of the CAAO had been asking government for, including the extension of the wage subsidy program and the expansion of the CEBA loan.
Gidaro said they have more meetings arranged in the coming weeks.
He said it’s important that people realize that the relationship between fairs and the his industry is symbiotic: When midways survive and thrive, so do fairs.
“If they (fairs) get money and there’s no midway provider to provide there, then it’s all for nothing,” he said. “What would the CNE be without rides and games?”
Marissa Lentz is a staff reporter at the Examiner, based in Peterborough. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Marissa Lentz, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Peterborough Examiner