Next week would have been fair week.
The Vermont State Fair was one of numerous festivals called off by the state as consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The fair has spent the past few years recovering from a financial crisis, and Rutland County Agricultural Society President Robert Congdon said the organization has scrambled to keep the pandemic from setting the fair too far back in the face of losing roughly $200,000 in revenue.
“We’re being very, very careful to make sure we’re in a position to move forward when this was over,” Congdon said Thursday. “We’re not looking at teetering on the edge at this point in time. If this goes on for an extended period of time, there will be some questions.”
Of course, the fair being canceled affects more than just the fair association.
“On any given year, $30,000 to $50,000 is paid out by the fair in payroll itself,” he said. “That is only for fair week. That is a lot of money in local people’s hands that goes into the economy.”
Former fair association president Luey Clough said he served the first fried bread dough at the fair in 1965. At one point, he had as many as eight food booths at the fair, but he said he has scaled back to four, including the Blue Ribbon Eatery. Clough said he worked other fairs and festivals through the year and all of them have been canceled.
“We lost our extra income, basically,” Clough said, putting his annual take from different events at around $50,000. “We have no income but Social Security now. ... I’m starting to sell my equipment. I have my place for sale down here, my home for sale.”
Clough said that after 56 years, he was ready to retire, but that his younger counterparts are facing difficult choices.
“Anybody that depends on this type of business is in rough shape this year,” he said. “A lot of guys try to set up food stands on the street. There’s limited success there — not like doing an event or a fair. Time will tell how they survive.”
The fair association has offered opportunities to some of its food vendors, at least, in the form of a food court that operates during the Paramount Theatre’s drive-in movie nights. Congdon said they tried keeping it open on other days, but the traffic wasn’t enough to sustain it.
Numerous organizations use the fair for fundraising. While information was not readily available about how much the Green Wave Cafe — where the sausage and peppers have long been a key part of fair week for many Rutlanders — contributes to the annual budget at Mount St. Joseph Academy, Congdon said the Rutland Area Christian School, where he is principal, operates a popcorn and soda concession at the grandstand that brings in $5,000 to $10,000.
Congdon said that isn’t a huge share of the school’s roughly $500,000 budget, but that every bit counts.
Then there’s the social aspect of the fair — and the political one.
“On an election year, I would probably do about a dozen spaces for political individuals,” he said.
While the Rutland County GOP did not immediately respond to inquiries, Rutland County Democratic Chairwoman Heather Juliussen-Stephenson said the fair served not so much as a chance to promote certain candidates — many of the people at the fair are not local voters — but as an opportunity for visibility.
“Regardless of where people are from, it’s important to see their values represented where they are,” she said.
Even without the fair, the fairgrounds are not lying fallow. Congdon said they will host three small horse events, two car shows and a “socially distanced antique market.”