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Contract Controversies & Financial Woes Fail to Stop Vermont State Fair

1/14/2015

By Timothy Herrick

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For the 2014 Vermont State Fair, success was not about how well this year's fair performed, but the fact that it even happened.

The 169th Vermont State Fair, ran August 29th to September 7th, had an attendance of about 55,000 and revenue of about $200,000. One of the oldest fairs in the United State, everyone involved admits the fair is a shadow of its former self and a precursory glance at the 2014 fair makes it appear to be a rather tepid event. 

But for the Rutland County Agricultural Society, as a series of problems and controversies unfolded, the very real potential of having no 2014 fair loomed for most of the past year.  How close did Vermont come to losing a tradition that began before the Civil War? "Within a hair's breadth," said Don Chioffi, president of the Rutland County Agricultural Society.

Enthusiastic Support
But the fair did indeed take place and while attendance was not in same ballpark of other fairs - or even of past Vermont State Fairs- its very existence is a luminous milestone in what has been a prolonged period of darkness. "We had a fair, not as good as we hoped but not as bad as our nightmares,"   said Chioffi. "The fair was a struggle, there's a million moving parts, but I look on it as a  positive that we had the fair. Like most fairs, we were down in some areas, up in others." 

In addition to being president, Chioffi holds another job at the fair - Gate Superintendent -  where he had birds eye view of fairgoer support. "There is a enthusiasm for the fair and from all of the patrons who came to the fair." 

Most board members and other fair staff wore multiple hats. This year, the fair was put on without a general manager and an all-volunteer staff, challenges that made the fact the fair became a reality a satisfying achievement. "Everyone worked so hard and with everything taken into account, we had a pretty good fair," he said. "We moved forward."

Financial Woes
The Vermont State Fair, plagued by financial woes for years, was bombarded by a series of set-backs following the 2013 fair. The IRS slapped the Rutland County Agricultural Society with a $110,000 lien, which sparked an internal audit that revealed a string of additional money losses. In February of this year, Richard Rivers, the long-term general manager and president of the Board of Trustees of the Rutland County Agricultural Society, was fired by the board. Within a few weeks of that action, another controversy erupted, when the board abruptly cancelled contracts with vendors and entertainment providers that were signed by Rivers.

The culmination of these problems jeopardized the 2014 Vermont State Fair. According to Chioffi, any planning for the fair began after the contract cancellations, only six months before opening day. "We lost a lot of time to plan the fair, but all that being said, it was a pretty remarkable fair."

He added, "we planned the fair with just our board, on a volunteer basis, and without a full time General Manager. 

The fair generated $200,000 in profits. "I had hoped to do in the range of $240,00, but we barely broke $200,000."

While the fair may now not be entirely in the black, there is less red on the ledger. According to Chioffi, we the Vermont State Fair retired 70 to 80 percent of their tax debt, "we have successfully a feasible payment plan with the IRS," he said.

He added that two members of the board signed their personal assets as collateral as part of the agreement.  "That shows the confidence we have in this fair continuing. They made the ultimate personal commitment to the fair."

Attendance Analysis
Weather was generally positive - sunny and hot "good days," but unfortunately "the two Saturdays of the fair were rainy."

Total attendance exceeded 50,000, according to Chioffi, far less than the reported 2013 attendance of 95,000. The attendance decline is not surprising, considering the lack of planning and slashed budgets. But Chioffi suggested that previous numbers may have been inflated. "It is very difficult to get accurate numbers from our past fairs, which may have shown higher revenue than actual dollars," he said. "We are looking at several areas, it is a difficult thing and did not yet have a reconciliations." 

More accurate accounting measures are in place, although a full report will not be available until December. "We are required by our bylaws to provide an accurate report to the Rutland Community," he said. 

Contractual Controversies
In February, following the board's termination of the Fair Manager, they also cancelled without explanation about a half dozen entertainment contracts on the basis that Rivers did not have the authority to issue contracts. This action caused an uproar in the fair industry and called into question the integrity of the Vermont fair. Chioffi dismisses the controversy,  asserting that most of the contracts were merely amended to reflect the current realities the Rutland County Agricultural Society faced in 2014.  

According to Chioffi, the fair was able to renegotiate contracts with Oler Productions; Endura Petting Zoo, Safari Racing Pigs and Horses Horses Horses performed at the Vermont State Fair. "We reached amicable agreements with Ditzy The Clown and Mojo Productions, who did not come to the fair," he said.

The Vermont State Fair, he said, is currently in litigation with Galaxy Girl stunt show and the Magic of Lance Gifford, who are contesting the contract renegotiation in court, according to Chioffi.

The contracting controversies may have blemished the fair's reputation, but the 2014 fair had several positive spots.  "On a limited budget, we were able to bring in new ground acts," said Chioffi. "We added a face painter, and a caricature artist, where fairgoers got something to take home, they left with something tangible. We had racing pigs, but we changed the location and that strategically drove people to the midway."

Another economically priced, newly added ground act, was Jason "White Shadow" Gibbons, an interactive basketball presentation, "it went over like gangbusters, it was a great ground act.

Coleman Brothers
Coleman Brothers Shows provided the Vermont State Fair midway, featuring about 30 rides, including its Twin Flip, "one of only two in the country," said Chioffi. "Coleman Brothers Shows returned to the fair and their usual, fantastic job. The Twin Flip was one of the most popular rides."

A minor conflict arouse between the carnival and the agricultural events, which are the core of the fair. "The Agricultural events run in the morning. We have a lot of 4H events, sheep sheering but the carnival doesn't open until later in the day and people were leaving. But you can't have your carnival drive your whole fair, and it is not practical to have the fuel and generators operate the entire day. It was harder to mesh both things this year."

Because of the timing conflicts, Chioffi said that even though the midway was a positive component of the overall fair, the midway provider was "moderately displeased with the total results."

Farming Traditions
In spite of minor conflicts, the agricultural segment was one of the most hopeful signs for the future of the Vermont State Fair. "We are one of the oldest fairs in the country, and we have a long tradition of Agricultural heritage," said Chioffi. "If you value that kind of thing, which we do, then are you willing to work hard, and not see it die. We believe that it is worthwhile having a fair that exposes many different elements of our state."

This year, Chioffi pointed out that expanded gardening exhibit was a notable success. "The showcase in our home gardening department was fantastic," said Chioffi. "These are things that when you look at the educational and historical of the fair, they are the major drivers of the fair, like the 4H, the maple and dairy industries. That's why you do it. We on the board truly believe in the fair."

He added, "We are a proud organization, and we can't consumed by disagreements."

While the headline acts of past fairs were not part of this year's fair, entertainment included three demolition derbies, truck pulls, garden tractor pulls, and a gospel night.  The 2014 Vermont Fair also hosted the Vermonters For Vermonters benefit, which raised money and awareness about drug abuse in the Green Mountain State. The event featured music and speakers, including Governor Peter. "I appreciate the effort of the volunteers to raise money for organizations devoted to tackling the deadly crisis of opiate and heroin addiction in Vermont, and for using the Vermont State Fair as a venue to raise public awareness of the problem and offer Vermonters a way to help," the Governor said. 

The severe financial straits inhibited many fair promotions - the fair had a bare bones marketing budget and is only online presence was its website and Facebook page. Chioffi said that the fair had "$14,000 in direct money and co-op advertising. If you can't spend actual dollars on the radio and TV, you workout the best deals with Media."

However, the fair did run some effective promotions, including Children's Agriculture Education Day, Free Senior day, and two $5 after 5pm days. 

Shortened 2015
The 2014 Vermont State Fair may not have been a resounding success, but it sustained the determination of fair organizers to persevere. While the fair's woes may have been lessened, controversies still plague this event. 

Immediately following the fair, the Rutland County Agricultural Society board of trustees unanimously voted to cut the length of the fair from 10 days to six. "It was an intelligent and smart decision," said Chioffi. "The general view is to capitalize on the fair as an event, to streamline it and have  more cost control and a balanced budget. We are now doing what we will do with smart budgeting, and justifying the intended revenue. You cannot budget something without looking at the income."

Eliminating days may reduce some overhead costs, but it is still a decision not without risk. "We cannot sustain a 10 day fair, but with a ten day fair, if you get terrible weather, you can make up for it with other days," he added.

Then in early September, Richard Rivers, manager of the Vermont State Fair, as well as president of the Rutland County Agricultural Society's board of trustees, filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in Rutland civil court. Chioffi, under advice of attorney, declined to comment on this new court action.

Planning for the shortened 170th  Vermont State Fair, Chioffi hopes will begin before the New Year, after a full report on the 2014 fair is completed. In addition to cutting overhead and exploring cost-effective methods of increasing attendance, the board is examining how to better utilize the fairgrounds. The buildings are now mainly rented in the off-season as storage facilities to generate revenue, but according to Chioffi, other events are under consideration, including a Festival of Lights, Horse shows and even a proposal by a Soccer organization. Also under serious consideration is the instillation of solar panels on one of its fields for renewal energy.  

"We have are looking at several interesting proposals and considering many options," said Chioffi.

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