Love A Fair

A farm background and an eager enthusiasm helped David Grimm turn the Champlain Valley Exposition into one of the best-used fairgrounds in the United States

by Tom Gresham

For 15 years, David Grimm has guided the fortunes of the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction. His unbridled enthusiasm and rural roots make him the ideal manager

Soon after graduating from Ohio State in 1973, David Grimm took a job as the farm director for a radio station in Worthington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. Grimm, the owner of a pleasant, authoritative voice well-suited for the airwaves, enjoyed the work, particularly when it called for his attendance at the Ohio State Fair.

As the fair approached during his first summer on the job, Grimm asked his boss how much time he should plan on spending among the livestock, fruit, vegetables and farm equipment that rolled in from around the state for the two-week-plus event.

"He said, 'Are you kidding me? You should be there every day,'" Grimm remembers. "So I spent 17 days at the Ohio State Fair, having just a great time. I guess that sort of whetted my appetite."

Grimm still loves a fair today, but he's much more than a mere chronicler of the event. He actually makes it happen.

Grimm is in his 15th year as general manager of the Champlain Valley Exposition, the home of the Champlain Valley Fair the largest fair in Vermont. Each year, about 300,000 people descend on the CVE for 10 days at the end of summer, delighting in the agriculture shows, carnival rides, musical concerts and food vendors that populate the fairgrounds in Essex Junction. Grimm is often among them.

"I love to walk through the fair, sit down and just watch people," Grimm says. "That's what makes the fair the fair: all those people. We reach a lot of them. The Champlain Valley Fair draws more people than any other event in the state. There's no better place to see people having a good time."

The CVE is a nonprofit founded in 1922. Unlike many fairgrounds that are operated in part by county or state governments, the CVE is required to support its operating and capital budgets through its own revenues.

The fair dominates CVE's mission, accounting for the bulk of the exposition's expenses and revenues, yet it is the growth in other special events that has perhaps most marked Grimm's tenure. The time the fair is in session is no longer the only time the facility witnesses large crowds.

In 1989, 10 non-fair events occurred at the CVE, producing 8 percent of its revenues. In 2004, the site will host approximately 100 non-fair special events, which will account for 25 percent of its revenues.

Grimm says CVE is now one of the best-used fairgrounds in the country, efficiently moving from dog shows to concerts to conventions throughout the year. The fairgrounds rarely stand quiet for long, instead regularly humming with all manner of activities.

To ensure that continues, CVE has hired longtime journalist and public affairs professional Steve Mease to the newly created position of director of public relations. "Steve brings a lot of great expertise in the public relations and media field, and we're pleased to have him on staff," says Grimm.

The denser special events calendar not only assures increased business for the CVE, but for Essex Junction and the Chittenden County region. Many of the non-fair events the Northeast Street Rod Nationals in September, for instance attract large amounts of "fresh money" revenue from out-of-state visitors injected into the Vermont economy.

Grimm says studies have shown CVE events generate about $50 million for the Vermont economy each year.

"Whenever I'm out in town, business people ask me, 'What've you got coming in next?'" Grimm said. "Because they know that when we've got an event, there will be lots of people looking for places to spend their money. I'm really proud of the economic activity we help bring to the community."

The Robert E. Miller Expo Centre will soon receive a 40,000-square-foot addition to make it even more attractive to large events. Almost lost in the current facility are Tom Oddy, George Rousseau and David Grimm.

The overriding reason CVE has been able to so markedly expand its special events offerings is the aggressive facilities improvements instituted by the CVE board of directors, according to Grimm.

The grounds of the CVE in the early 1990s looked very much as they had in the 1960s. No major construction, no major improvements. Then, in 1994 "a defining year," Grimm says CVE underwent two significant changes: The board of directors developed a master plan, and Essex Junction gave CVE its own zoning district.

Both led to the subsequent growth of the past decade, Grimm says. The chief manifestation has been the construction of the Robert E. Miller Expo Centre five years ago. The Expo Centre provided a large indoor space capable of hosting events previously unattainable for the fairgrounds.

Enabling the facility's construction was a partnership with the Nordic Spirit Soccer Club, which occupies the Expo Centre for much of the winter.

"Our investment in our facilities and operations, particularly the last five years, has allowed us to operate at a much higher level than anyone ever anticipated," says Grimm. "Building the Miller Expo Centre was the key. I think it's the single biggest thing to happen to the Expo since 1922. Our board of directors deserves a lot of credit for making that happen."

CVE has hardly stopped building, however. Immediately on the horizon is a 40,000-square-foot facility that will connect to the Expo Centre and increase the space available for large events and conventions even further.

Construction on the $2.5 million project will begin in September, two weeks after this year's fair has closed, and officials expect the facility to be ready for occupancy in mid-January. The latest project will push CVE spending on capital improvements to approximately $6.6 million over the last 10 years.

Grimm is unabashedly excited.

"We're doing some great things now," he said, "but wait until we get everything built. That's going to be something."

Grimm has been an avid attendee of fairs since he was a child growing up in northern Ohio near Lake Erie. He was in 4-H and his father was a county agent.

"It was just an assumed thing that you would go to the fair every year," he says.

Grimm studied agricultural journalism at Ohio State and then spent his year as a radio reporter. His next step was director of public relations for the National Tractor Pullers Association.

He says he spent 10 years off and on with the NTPA, eventually assuming the role of executive director. The position offered myriad responsibilities public relations, marketing, soliciting sponsors that would serve Grimm well when he came to the Champlain Valley Exposition. In addition, Grimm served as the tour's public address announcer, a gig that saw him announce at fairs and in large arenas across the country.

The NTPA job required him to be on the road for 30 weekends a year. "As I grew older, I started to want to settle down," he says. "I was getting burned out with all of the travel."

Because it is in the agricultural education business, the Champlain Valley Exposition received 501(c)3 nonprofit status about 10 years ago, a fact not generally known. This means tax advantages for donors, much as those from contributions to the Flynn Theatre, says David Grimm, although that source of revenue has not been actively pursued. Tom Oddy (left) is director of special events, and George Rousseau is director of sales and marketing.

Through a mutual friend, Grimm learned of the impending opening of the manager position at the CVE. He was already familiar with the area and the fairgrounds from his work with the NTPA, and the appeal of the job and the area was obvious to him.

Soon after, Grimm made the move to Vermont with his wife, Debbie, who's a registered nurse, and their two young children. Mary, 17, is a rising senior at Essex High School; Paul, 24, lives in Columbus.

Grimm says the decision to come to Vermont has proved to be the right one both personally "we've really loved Vermont," Grimm said and professionally. Grimm, a member of the board of directors for the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, is a tireless promoter of fairs and appears to revel in the diverse tasks and duties required of him. He might be on the phone with a musical talent booker one hour and a farmer the next. The job, he said, never grows stale.

"But you better know the difference between festival seating and a heifer," Grimm jokes.

Through it all, he vigilantly strives to produce settings and scenes people can enjoy. His affection for the people who come through the CVE gates is evident.

Perhaps the most evident sign of Grimm's enthusiasm is his annual turn as public address announcer for the tractor-pulling contest on the fair's last day a time other fair directors might choose to put up their feet and breathe.

"When my predecessor, Bob Adsit, turned over the reins to me here, he said something to me as he walked out the door that I will never forget," recalls Grimm. "He said, 'Never forget that we put smiles on people's faces.' I like that. It doesn't matter whether it's the big fair or a small dog show, we want people to have a good time and be happy. That's what we have to try to do."

Originally published in August 2004 Business People-Vermont