The 170th Vermont State Fair got underway Friday in Rutland. After nearly two years of internal upheaval, debt, and last minute scramble to find a midway, organizers say just being able to open the gates was a huge accomplishment.
Roland McNeil, President of the Rutland County Agricultural Society, the organization that’s run the fair for more than 150 years, sits in his crowded office and smiles.
“To see the fair coming together after all the hard work, it’s awesome, it’s great. I couldn’t be happier,” he says.
It’s quite a contrast from February 2014. That’s when fair trustees learned the IRS had placed a lien on the Rutland fairgrounds for unpaid taxes and some $277,000 worth of debt was discovered.
Trustees at the time blamed former fair manager Richard Rivers, who was ousted from his job.
But Rivers turned around and sued the trustees, arguing they didn’t follow proper disciplinary procedure when they voted to fire him.
The two sides settled the case this past December and fair officials wouldn’t talk about the details.
But Don Chioffi, vice president of the Rutland County Agricultural Society, says they have made great strides in reducing the fair’s debt. He says while attendance last year was down, they still managed to clear $260,000 at the gate, all of which he says was used to pay bills.
Chioffi says efforts to make the fair more family friendly with a bigger circus, full petting zoo and other animal attractions will hopefully help them boost attendance this year.
“You’re not going to see our economic problems,” says Chioffi. “What you’re going to do is come and pay $12 and get about $150 bucks worth of entertainment. I mean who wouldn’t want that?” he asks.
Rutland City Treasurer Wendy Wilton says the Rutland County Agricultural Society owes the city $55,000 for various fees and services accrued prior to this year's fair. She says fair organizers have agreed to pay that off over a three-year period and have put up collateral to guarantee it. Fair trustees have also promised to pay the expenses and permit costs for this year's fair once it's completed, Wilton says.
Roland McNeil says city officials have been very accommodating and have helped the fair find more creative, less costly ways to provide police and fire coverage — efforts McNeil says will save about $45,000 this year alone.