Tonawanda News

July 18, 2013

The man behind the midway

Corky Powers has powered Canal Fest fun for 25 years

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Les “Corky” Powers is the mayor of a moving city.

Every summer from early April through the last week of October, Powers Great American Midways is on the move, bringing its rides and concessions and games to festivals and fairs through seven states in the eastern United States. And for the past 25 years, Canal Fest has been one of those stops along the way.

But Powers’ roots in the business go back further than that. He’s the fourth generation of his family in the business, and grew up travelling with his parents.

“I remember sleeping in the car when I was a little kid, or in a tent,” he said recently during an interview in the RV that serves as his mobile office and home-away-from-home. “Things have changed. We’ve been growing with the times. We started with three rides; now we have 58 rides. We’re proud of what we’re doing. We’re trying to create a family atmosphere.”

While his family was involved with games, concessions, even sideshows in the early years, it was Powers who started adding rides about 32 years ago, creating the midway as it is today. His children are involved in the business in various ways, and a sixth generation in the field is always possible: His grandchildren even now attend school with the midway’s mobile school (one of only a few in the United States).

While the midway travels, there are roots here as well. Powers grew up in Rochester, and his wife, Debbie, is an Orchard Park native. And after 25 years as a part of Canal Fest, Powers has roots in the Tonawandas as well.

Rae Proefrock, director of the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum, said Powers has helped keep the museum — which is now celebrating its 30th anniversary — going strong.

“We’ve had a really great working relation all these years,” she said, noting that the museum gets a percentage of the midway proceeds each year. “That’s given us about a fourth of our budget every year. Without it we’d be in rough shape.”

In addition, Proefrock said, Powers has been very supportive of the new Kiddieland exhibit, donating $10,000 for the new area’s pavilions. He also transported the helicopter ride planned for the exhibit back to the business’ restoration shop in North Carolina and had it completely restored, something that would have cost the museum thousands of dollars.

“That’s a real treasure, for him to have done that,” she said.

Powers said that he tries to help out when he can, including a number of organizations on the route up the East Coast.

“I’ve always had a passion for the museum,” he said. “They need all the help they can get. Part of us being here is because of them. ... We do anything we can to help them.”

Larry Denef, president of Canal Fest Inc., also said the 25-year relationship with Powers Great American Midways has been a good one.

“We try to help each other out. ... He probably helps us out more they we help him out,” he said of Powers. “I consider him one of the best independent ride promoters you can ever find. We have no concerns as an organization because we know know he’s very vigilant.”

About 125 people travel in RVs with the midway, including Powers’ family. With game operators and others included, it’s up to about 350 people.

Challenges of the business include finding good help and negotiating the different rules, regulations and laws each county and state have throughout the United States, Powers said. “Every county has different quirks. You have to just be prepared. Nothing’s uniform. If everyone could only be on the same page ...”

Canal Fest presents a unique challenge in that it’s set up on a few city streets, as opposed to the more usual field set-up, he said. 

“You need to accommodate all the merchants on the street to make sure they’re not getting mad at you,” he said. “In a field, you can bring in everything every which way. (Here) you have to bring them in one at a time to make them fit properly.”

For all the challenges, however, Powers enjoys the business. And the best part, he said, is the travel.

“To me, it’s like moving a city every other week,” he said. “Next week we’re going to be in a little town near Albany. It’s a completely different atmosphere. The week after that, we’re going to be 18 miles from Washington.

“I just enjoy watching the kids and seeing people. And hopefully they’re having a good time.”