By Gordon Dritschilo
Luey Clough was just wrapping up a call on his desk phone when his cellphone started ringing.
“You said you had a deal for me,” the president of the Rutland County Agricultural Society said after quickly switching devices.
With fair week closing in, Clough was in the office at the fairgrounds last week nailing down last-minute details. After several years in the wilderness, Clough said the fair turned a corner last year, and organizers hope to build on that momentum when the gates open Aug. 14.
“For the first time since I can remember, we had all our bills paid,” he said.
The fair has been rebuilding since 2014, when the board of trustees voted to remove then-president and fair manager Richard Rivers from both posts after discovering an IRS lien on the fairgrounds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills.
As of last year, the fair still had bills going back to 2011. With the help of a $190,000 loan, Clough said, the last of those was paid off in December. The six-year loan came from an anonymous “individual not connected with the fair,” at a 6 percent interest rate, and relieved a lot of pressure, Clough said.
“We actually showed a … profit last year — on a much-shortened fair grossing a lot less,” he said.
The fair also now has a finance committee charged with watching the money. Lana Kantorski, Richard Gidding and Sharon McNeil took on that job, and Clough credits them with the improved financial situation.
“We also learned we have to use volunteers,” Clough said. “The payroll can’t be as high as it was.”
Clough said a five-person grounds staff works throughout the year, and the fair still hires parking attendants, but relies far more heavily on volunteer labor.
“It’s a very thin line between losing money and making a profit,” Clough said. “One little thing can go wrong and ruin everything.”
Vice President Robert Congdon Jr. — who Clough said he hopes to see step up into the presidency next year — said the margin is also kept thin by ticket prices, which will once again be $10 except for opening night, when admission will be $5.
“We try to keep prices reasonable,” Congdon said. “There may be some out there who argue with us on that, but we do try to keep it reasonable as possible. We want to keep it affordable for people, but there’s a lot that goes into the fair. … I think the $5 day has been a step in the right direction. That opening night at the half-price seriously upped our attendance, and it got us off on the right foot.”
Total attendance for the fair last year was 30,000. Clough said it bottomed out at 12,000 in recent years. Congdon said attendance was up slightly from the previous year, and the fair turned a profit of roughly $30,000 that covered the association’s losses on events earlier in the year and left some money for grounds improvements. He said the list of needed repairs totals $640,000.
“We’re whittling away at it,” Congdon said. “It’s not going to go away overnight, but we’re taking the proper steps.”
Meanwhile, Clough said, organizers are feeling confident enough to try something they had moved away from — headliner Dan Tyminski is the fair’s first major musical act in a few years.
“Anything with motors and noise seems to be the best attraction here,” Clough said. “Entertainment seems to be hit and miss. We thought the fact that Dan’s from West Rutland might help us get some local support back.”