When the 168th Vermont State Fair ended September 8th of last year, local newspapers reported attendance exceeded 95,000, and that the organizers declared the fair a success. But eventually, disturbing questions about the financial health of the fair became public, followed by the dismissal of the fair President and Manager, and more recently, cancellation of major vendor contracts.
Now, questions have emerged about the viability of the Rutland County Agricultural Society, organizers of the fair. Will there be a 169th Vermont State Fair, and if there will be one, what kind of fair can fairgoers expect?
In February of this year, it was revealed that the fair was operating at a huge loss, had serious trouble with the IRS and that Richard Rivers, who had been associated with the fair for more than decade and its President and Fair Manager for about eight years, was removed by the fair board. In May, these financial issues and personnel problems were further compounded when Stacy Chapman, attorney for the Rutland County Agricultural Society, notified two leading Vermont State Vendors that their 2014 fair contracts were being cancelled without explanation.
The two vendors were Mojoe Productions, who has provided sound, sets and lighting for shows at the fair since 2008, and Oler Productions, a promoter who represents half a dozen entertainment acts and attractions at the fair. Oler has been a Vermont Fair vendor for upwards of four decades.
In spite of the controversy surrounding and leading up to these unexplained cancellations - an unprecedented move by a fair - Fair representatives insist that there will be a Vermont Fair in 2014. "The Vermont Fair is alive and well and there will be a Vermont Fair this summer," said Chapman.
While it is credible this annual Vermont event will in fact take place, the assertion that the fair is alive and well seems dubious.
On May 8th, Chapman, acting on behalf of the fair, sent letters to Mojoe and Oler as well as the six acts that Oler represents. Don Chioffi, the recently appointed president of the Rutland County Agricultural Society, refused to comment directly to Carnivalwarehouse. However, according to a May 22nd article in the Rutland Herald, Chioffi said the contracts were canceled "for cause" related to dealings by the former president and fair manager Richard Rivers, who was removed from both offices earlier this year."
Rutland Herald : "We have a $110,000 deficit," Chioffi said. "When you have a $110,000 deficit and the IRS hasn't been paid and the state taxes haven't been paid and the electric bill hasn't been paid ... there's a competency issue here and an authority issue here and the contracts were canceled. They were deemed not to be valid."
In response to an email with questions from Carnivalwarehouse, when asked if Oler and Mojoe were the "only contracts cancelled," the response from the Rutland County Agricultural Society, was "no," indicating that there may be other vendors whose contracts have been cancelled. Chapman would neither confirm nor deny if additional vendor contracts were cancelled.
According to Zeke Oler of Oler Productions, on February 24th, after learning that Rivers was removed from his position, Oler contacted fair officials seeking assurances that contracts signed by Rivers would be honored for the 2014 fair. "When I found out that that the President and General Manager had been removed under some controversy, I contacted the fair, and they responded on March 10th saying they would honor the contracts that were signed," said Oler.
According to Oler, the value of his contracts with the fair are worth $60,000 to $70,000; affected parties according to Oler, include: Eudura Petting Zoo, Safari Racing Pigs, Ditsy the Glamorous Clown, the Galaxy Girl stunt show and the Magic of Lance Gifford.
On May 8th, Oler said he received an email from Chapman, saying that the contracts would not be honored, retracting his March 10th email. "There were three or four communiques with the lawyer, via email and phone," said Oler. "We now have to go under the assumption that the contracts will not be honored. We have met with our legal representation. I did call Don Chioffi, expressed that we had a 40-year relationship with the Vermont State Fair, and maybe we could settle this man to man. But he declined so it looks like we are going to court."
Lance Gifford, a magician specializing in the fair circuit, had a two-year contract (for 2014 and 2015); - the other Oler acts were for one-year terms. "I had adequate assurances that the contracts will be honored on March 10th," said Gifford. "But on May 8th, I received notice that there were no binding contracts and we no longer had contractual relations with the fair and for the performing artists to obtain alternative bookings."
Gifford claims that initially, an email from Chapman asserted that the contracts were being cancelled on the basis that Chapman had not received confirmation of the email he sent Oler on March 10th , when the lawyer provided assurances the contracts would be honored. Gifford said Oler substantiated that indeed, confirmation of receipt of the initial email had been sent to Chapman on March 10. Gifford said that Chapman then responded that the contracts had been cancelled, but this time offered Gifford a 30 percent cancellation fee.
"In my 30 years of playing fairs, I've never had a problem with a signed contract," said Gifford. "I had other offers that I turned down for this booking. I've had a 12-year relationship with the Vermont Fair. "
Gifford takes booths at industry trade shows, including the International Association of Fairs & Expositions (IAFE) annual convention, but with the confidence he had already booked the days and weeks around and including the crucial Labor Day weekend. "The Vermont State Fair is 10 days that also falls on Labor Day," said Gifford. "The time to book those crucial weeks is at those winter conventions, but I went to those conventions knowing I had those times booked. I called some fair associations after I received the cancellation email from the fair's lawyer and was told that the Vermont Fair had not renewed their membership."
Greg Herndon of Mojoe Productions declined comment for this article. "I have no comment at this time, I believe my contract will be honored."
According to the Rutland Herald, when the current president was asked specifically if the contract with Mojoe Productions will be honored: "Chioffi said that was unlikely."
Chapman refused to clarify his email communication or the current contractual status between the Rutland County Agricultural Society and these two long-standing Vermont State Fair vendors. "I will not get into the substance of whether contracts have been cancelled or are under negotiation," said Chapman.
However, he did state that he expects to avoid litigation. "There will be no lawsuit, there are no lawsuits," said Chapman. "That is premature. The fair has not been sued. When all the plans are finalized, there will be a communication to the public regarding the fair contracts."
Whether or not lawsuits with the vendors are soon to be pending or can be avoided is only one of the legal issues likely facing the Vermont State Fair in the months prior to the annual 10-day celebration of the Green Mountain State.
Rivers, the former President and Fair Manger of the Vermont State fair, said he was released from the job on February 12th, and soon hired a lawyer. "Our position is that I had a valid employment contract that the Rutland County Agricultural Society has broken," he told Carnivalwarehouse.
Rivers, who has been associated with the fair since 2001 and was voted in as President and Fair Manager by the fair board in 2003, is still involved with the fair, albeit not in an executive position. He is a member of the association that organizes the event. "Even though I am not employed, I am currently still a member of the Rutland County Agricultural Society which has 175 members," he said. "At a special meeting in March, the members were told that all the contracts with the grounds entertainment acts were still in place. All the contracts signed by me, as President, were going to be honored."
Rivers also claims that at the March meeting of the Rutland County Agricultural Society, members were informed that the Oler and Mojoe contracts were to be honored. He said the May 8th cancellation emails from Chapman were sent without the approval by, or even knowledge of, the members of the society. "We found out only after that the attorney sent a letter to Oler and Mojoe saying that their contracts were being cancelled," said Rivers. "As a member of the association, I find this very disconcerting. The members were not informed of this move."
After the 2013 fair, the financial issues confronting the fair, including the large deficit and IRS lien were made public. In February, the fair announced they were conducting an audit, which at the time was said will be completed in two weeks. In early June, Chapman said the audit "was still ongoing."
Rivers said he is waiting for the results of this audit - first announced in February - before he can initiate court proceedings regarding his termination.
While the sequence of events - from the financial troubles coming to light to the cancellation of contracts - are worrisome, Rivers is quick to defend his tenure at the helm of the fair. "I do not feel my time as President is clouded," he said. "During my administration we put in $1.2 million in capital improvements, and had a debt of $400,000 that was retired. We were able to get a loan to put in a new bathroom."
Rivers believes the root cause of the current financial crisis now afflicting the Vermont State started in 2011, when Hurricane Irene devastated the region. "We continued the fair, even though Irene happened during the fair, but we had a loss of $60,000 that year. We never quite rebounded back, and if you look at the facts and figures, it takes three years for a fair to rebound after an event like Hurricane Irene."
Chapman refused to speculate on the connection between the recent history of financial woes that has plagued the Vermont Fair and the cancellation of the 2014 vendor contracts. "I am not getting into the substance of any of the financial issues facing the fair," said Chapman. "There will be ground acts. Who, what and when are being worked out. The financial issues the fair faces will not prevent the fair from taking place this year."
Regarding the challenge of how, under an IRS Lien, the Rutland County Agricultural Society will put on a Vermont State Fair that can meet expectations of fairgoers and stake-holders, Chapman said "the matters have been and continue to be addressed and we are following the outline by the IRS recorded in the lien."