- James Buck
The cast of characters behind Chittenden County's annual show of fried dough, monster trucks and creepy carnies is — you guessed it — a charitable organization.
The Champlain Valley Fair is a rite of Vermont summer; last year, 120,000 people came through the gates over the course of the 10-day event in Essex Junction, according to executive director Tim Shea.
The annual extravaganza is also the raison d'être of its parent nonprofit, the Champlain Valley Exposition, which owns the 130 acres on which the fair is held. In the last two weeks of August, the expo organization makes most of its $3.4 million budget. Payroll expands dramatically, too, from 13 full-time workers to more than 300 seasonal ones who set up the midway, park cars, provide security, and clean up during and after the fair.
The rest of the year, Shea and a dozen colleagues run a smaller operation, renting out three buildings for about 70 events a year, including a Cub Scouts, summer camp, bingo fundraisers, the Vermont Farm Show and local law enforcement trainings.
Winter storage for boats and campers also brings in revenue to keep the gates open year-round.
"It's a facility that's so important to the community that you need to maintain it for the other 355 days," Shea said. He pointed out that the Addison County Fair and Field Days, Tunbridge World's Fair, Guilford Fair, and Orleans County Fair are also 501c3s.
When the Champlain Valley Fair started in 1922, the expo financed the event by selling 2,000 shares to members of the public, at $50 apiece.
Nearly a century later, the approximately 1,500 shares still in circulation are largely historical mementos. The shares haven't appreciated in value, so they're still worth $50 each, and new shares can no longer be purchased — except by current board members.
Families pass down their shares to children and grandchildren "to hang on to a piece" of history, Shea suggested. "That's what the fair is to a lot of people: nostalgia."
Shareholders also elect the board — about 10 showed up to vote in May, according to board president Al Gobeille, whose day job is secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services. The 15-member expo board includes Jolinda LaClair, director of drug abuse prevention for the state; Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle); and Kyle Bostwick, vice president of the Vermont Lake Monsters.
The group is tasked with planning an agricultural fair that reflects the times, said Sam Cutting IV, president of Dakin Farm and co-vice chair of the board. "It's not the same old agriculture," he said, noting trends in value-added products, specialty products and organic farming.
The board has started inducting different types of farmers into the Vermont Agricultural Hall of Fame and is adding awards for ag innovators and emerging leaders, Cutting said, to recognize growers who are finding creative ways to make a living.
The state's largest fair has made some budget adjustments, too, in the past decade. Revenue decreased from $5.4 million in 2009 to $3.3 million in 2016, according to the most recent documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service. Shea said that's because the expo is booking smaller — read: less expensive — musical acts than in the past.
But the event's economic impact hasn't diminished. Although it doesn't pay property or income taxes, the fair generates revenue for the state from the rooms and meals tax visitors pay, and from the taxes paid by the businesses that rent space and sell concessions at the fair.
"I'd argue we create a way for the state and local government to get more taxes than if we were just residential or a strip mall," Gobeille said.
The expo does pay $15,000 annually in lieu of taxes to the village of Essex Junction and contracts town police to patrol the fair. "People automatically think nonprofit means no tax, and it's not true," Gobeille said. "It's not fair."