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People line up to try a ninja obstacle course
After the longtime carnival operator at FIBArk pulled out of the event the day before the 75th annual river festival was scheduled to begin, event organizers enlisted a ninja-type training course and zipline operator to set up in downtown Salida. (Dakota Revack, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

After they cussed him out, sent mean texts and even hurled bags of urine and poop onto his stoop, Morgan Jones asked his Salida neighbors if he could share his side of the story. 

Yes, he did ask the volunteer board that runs the 75-year-old FIBArk festival to require the owner of Sun Valley Rides to move the spinning carnival swing 2 feet back so the ride would not cross into the yard of the home he has owned for 11 years on downtown’s Sackett Avenue. Just as he had asked the previous year. And the year before that. 

“Once I make the conscious decision to allow an inherently dangerous ride to encroach on my property, that’s where my liability comes in,” Jones, who is an attorney, said in an interview with The Colorado Sun on Tuesday. “There is not a homeowner’s policy anywhere that would allow a carnie ride on a property.”

When Sun Valley carnival owner Steve Mattfeldt on June 16 told his 45 workers to pack up the more than dozen rides they had installed in downtown Salida the day before for the weekend’s FIBArk festival, he blamed Jones. So did the FIBArk board, firing off a now-deleted Facebook post that noted “the inability of a couple of residents and business owners to work with the carnival has resulted in the disappointment of thousands of children.”

The waves of carnival-killing angst immediately engulfed Jones. His phone blew up with what he called “vicious” texts and calls. He said he listened, thanked his neighbors for sharing, and then offered his perspective. He is from Texas and he is a lawyer, but he’s been living in Salida for 12 years and he’s got real concerns about a nonprofit entity like FIBArk partnering with “a company that has such inherently dangerous equipment.”

“It’s one thing to hire a company to come in and do something with you,” he said. “It’s an entirely different thing to partner with a company and share revenue. Revenue sharing is a whole different animal when it comes to liability.”

Concerns over liability continue to haunt good times in Colorado, with businesses and landowners closing access and limiting operations for fear of lawsuits. 

“The teenagers who came to my house, they were very angry but … I told them when I was a teenager, there were not so many lawsuits but today, everyone sues and goes to court,” Jones said. “I told them I hope the next generation can stop that and start accepting more responsibility and stop taking everyone to court.”

A crowd watches people perform on a stage set up along a river.
FIBArk organizers say the 75th annual river festival drew record crowds to downtown Salida and Riverside Park on June 16-18 despite navigating challenges that included high water and the departure of the carnival. (David Krause, The Colorado Sun)

The FIBArk board has pulled back on its criticism of Jones. The board admits it had long-standing issues with Mattfeldt and his operation, which has set up carnival rides in downtown Salida — and several other Colorado communities — every summer for more than 15 years. His family has been in the carnival business — rolling its massive crew and dozens of trucks through seven Western states from February to November — since the late 1980s. 

When he was setting up late June 13, it took hours to get cars towed so he could anchor his rides, costing him several hours of overtime pay for his crew. Every year it’s a different person who works with the carnival, he said.

Every year he runs into issues with how the city has laid out its festival, he said. 

“Look, I can’t make my rides any smaller and I can’t make them shift shapes and every year we get micromanaged,” he said. “I swore last year I’d never come back to Salida. After this year I’m not ever coming back to Salida.”

When he pulled his crew out of Salida and back to the Chaffee County fairgrounds, he planned to spend several days working on his rides. The county ordered him to haul his 15 RVs and rolling bunkhouses off the property. 

“We were going to spend the week there buying tires, paint and working on our equipment and spending money in the community,” Mattfeldt said. “I guess they don’t want our money. There have been 74 carnivals that have gone out of business in this country since COVID. It’s becoming a nearly impossible business. I do feel sorry for the family and kids who come to Salida and enjoy the carnival, but I can only take so much.”

Lindsay Sutton-Stephens said the crowds at this year’s FIBArk were the biggest ever. 

“I’ve never seen that many people in downtown Salida,” said the president of the FIBArk board, her voice a raspy whisper “from so much talking” over the weekend. 

The FIBArk board and city have had issues with Mattfeldt for years over the layout of the festival. The city closes downtown streets to cars during the event, but it needs to maintain 20-foot, unoccupied lanes for fire trucks. Squeezing in spinning carnival rides is “a dance that people don’t see,” Sutton-Stephens said. 

“We also try desperately to honor the wishes of our downtown businesses and not block their access,” she said. “Sun Valley is not easy to work with, and I can personally say our board members endured quite a bit of abuse to get this done every year.”

The board returned $25,000 in pre-purchased festival tickets when Mattfeldt yanked his carnival. That money was meant for a kids’ paddling program that gets Salida school children on the river. Last year every third grader in the city got a high-quality personal flotation device for the river, thanks in part to revenue from FIBArk. 

Sutton-Stephens said she encouraged Salida businesses, residents like Jones and her fellow board members to accommodate the challenges “for the children in our community.”

“The FIBArk board was begging and pleading and doing everything we could to keep the carnival,” Sutton-Stephens said. “But we pivoted toward positivity. That’s what we called it and we pulled it off.”

At the last minute, FIBArk organizers and Salida lured a ninja-themed obstacle course to fill the carnival void. The owner of the Captain Zipline tour outside of town set up a line between cottonwood trees in Riverside Park, which was ground zero for the festival. Ramps and Alleys skateshop set up its street ramps in an expanded skatepark downtown. 

“I can’t say enough about how this community came together and salvaged this. The whole vibe changed on Saturday after a couple very taxing days,” said Sutton-Stephens, who hopes to bring a carnival to town in the fall for kids who missed the rides during FIBArk. “The kids were thrilled. I think this needed to happen for us to pivot toward something more beautiful and hoping for something that is kinder for our board, kinder for our businesses and kinder for our residents.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...