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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

At Space Walk in Kenner, a family business remains firmly grounded

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Mials Scurlock, general manager of the bounce house rental company Space Walk, wants to assure parents that his products are not going to fly into the air on a strong gust of wind.
"This one here weighs 700 pounds," Scurlock said, slapping a fully inflated 18-foot slide in the parking lot behind Space Walk's headquarters in Kenner. "It might blow over, but it will never blow up."
Mials, 25, is the grandson of Space Walk founder John Scurlock, who died in 2008. A plastics specialist who worked for NASA and taught at Tulane University, John Scurlock invented the modern-day inflatable design and founded Space Walk Inc. in 1958. He was later credited with inventions like the Space Walk safety air cushion, used by Hollywood stuntmen and fire brigades in the event of high-rise fires.
But as the industry John Scurlock created has evolved and diversified, the safety of so-called inflatables has come into question. On May 13, a Little Tikes Jump 'n Slide Bouncer in South Glen Falls, N.Y., flew 50 feet into the air in a high wind. Two children inside were seriously injured when they toppled out; one landed on the asphalt, the other on a parked car.
The Consumer Products Safety Commission is now conducting an investigation into the safety of Little Tikes inflatables and similar retail designs. But Mials Scurlock stressed that customers should have no concerns about the safety of Space Walk's commercial products, which are only available for rent and come with strict user-safety guidelines.
The Little Tikes design that blew away in New York weighs only 38 pounds, Scurlock said. He added that the tent stakes used to secure the product to the ground were plastic and only 6 inches long, making it poorly equipped to withstand a strong wind.
"This is what we use," Scurlock said, brandishing a 24-inch stainless steel tent stake. The company purchased 15,000 such stakes in the last six months to secure the hundreds of inflatables they buy each year, he said. "They aren't cheap. But in this business, they buy peace of mind."
Scurlock compares working at Space Walk to an "extreme sport" for the amount of stress it entails. The company faces the constant threat of lawsuits from parents whose children injure themselves while bouncing in, onto or off of inflatables. The company has a $2 million insurance policy and detailed safety contract that all customers are required to sign, Scurlock said.
Patty Murphy, Scurlock's mother and the owner of Space Walk, said the company oversees approximately 200 Space Walk stores around the country, which engage in about 35,000 rental contracts a year. At any one time, she said, Space Walk is tracking 4,000 inflatable units as they crisscross the United States from county fairs to 6-year-old birthday parties.
A tour of the Space Walk facility attests to the company's substantial inventory. In the repair and transportation warehouse, hundreds of deflated vinyl castles and obstacle courses sat in bags awaiting delivery to Boston or Memphis or Orlando. A shallow pit in the floor held a bank of sewing machines, with which workers were repairing rips and tears in the units' fabric.
When he invented the modern-day inflatable, John Scurlock may have found it hard to imagine that he was creating what Murphy estimates to be a $100 million industry. According to Murphy, her John Scurlock had no particular interest in business.
"He was a designer at heart," she said. "What he liked most was sitting in his warehouse with his bobbins and sewing machines."
Murphy said that John Scurlock got the idea for bounce houses while designing inflatable tent covers for tennis courts in the late 1950s.
The Rault Center Fire in 1972, in which five people died, later inspired him to develop the safety air cushion, Murphy said.
When John Scurlock suffered a heart attack in the early 1980s, his son Frank dropped out of college to keep the business afloat. With
Murphy, his then-wife, he created an indoor amusement park in Metairie called The Fun Factory.
But the profitability of indoor amusement parks proved unsustainable, and Frank Scurlock and Murphy eventually transitioned into rentals. Mials Scurlock, who got his start in the business by field-testing the company's inflatable playpens as a baby, joined the company workforce by managing Space Walk's Kissimmee branch while at Florida State University.
The inflatables market has changed dramatically over the years. The original bouncy house was little more than a giant air-filled pillow with a roof. Today, that design has given way to more than 250 different models, include inflatable waterslides, basketball gyms, characters inspired by the movie "Frozen" and a game called Wrecking Ball, in which players try to knock each other down with a giant beach ball. 
Thousands of companies rent inflatables around the country, but Mials Scurlock said that Space Walk has no direct competitors in the Southeast. Astro Jump, a bounce house rental company in Waco, Texas, represents Space Walk's biggest rival on the national scale, he said.
Alex Filip, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said that the investigation into the safety of Little Tikes and related inflatables is ongoing. "I've been telling the TV stations, 'Look, we're not CSI, we don't do everything in an hour,'" he said. 
But Filip suspects the problem lies in retail inflatables inspired by larger versions in the commercial-grade rental market, which are less likely to suddenly take flight.
Kunal Nayee, head of business development for Space Walk, said that he and Mials Scurlock visited the Consumer Product Safety Commission a year ago, following another investigation into retail inflatables.
"Incidents like the Little Tikes blowing away bring negative attention to the industry," he said. "So we asked for a comprehensive regulation for all states to follow as far as inflatables go."
No such regulations have been implemented. But Space Walk employees remain confident in the safety and durability of their products. 
In his warehouse, Mials Scurlock picked up a corner of a deflated dino-toddler unit. "This is made out of 18-ounce vinyl," he said proudly. "In the inflatable market, that's about as tough as a Chevy truck."