New direction for Lake County Fair
The Lake County Fair Association may evoke memories of prize winning farm animals, but its operation as a wide-ranging business has taken center stage.
For the first time in its long history, the fair has a full-time professional manager, a result of a member revolt late last year.
Sheri Piecuch Vyfvinkel, who was selected from about 300 applicants, started as the day-to-day manager and public face for the Grayslake venue on March 21.
Having spent the past six years as director of entertainment at Navy Pier, with previous stops at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, and the Mayor's Office of Special Events in Chicago, Vyfvinkel's experience is not rooted in agriculture.
But with an array of duties that have included event production, logistics and budgeting, her expertise is what the volunteer fair association hopes will pull it from a financial hole and make the sprawling grounds at Peterson and Midlothian Road a go-to events center.
"What you're seeing now is the evolution of the fair to much more sophisticated business practices and marketing practices," said Rudy Magna, longtime attorney for the private, not-for-profit group. "The vision of the fairgrounds is becoming more concrete."
Seeking a change of pace and more space than typical close-in suburbs afford, Vyfvinkel fondly recalled childhood trips to Fish Lake Beach in Volo and looked northwest.
She moved last summer from a one-bedroom condo in Chicago to a single-family home in Wauconda and was commuting downtown when the fairgrounds position hit the job postings.
"I didn't believe this popped up," she said.
The chaotic state of the fair's finances led fair members during the annual meeting last November to demand a review and hiring someone to oversee the operation full-time.
Those demands were crafted and voiced for members by Greg Koeppen, manager of the Lake County Farm Bureau.
Though not malicious or criminal, the actions of some of the volunteer fair directors led to millions of dollars in unpaid bills involving the construction of the fairground, which opened in 2009 after more than 50 years at routes 120 and 45 in Grayslake, Koeppen said.
"There was nothing inappropriately done at all," he said. "It was a lack of understanding what was going in and what was going out. There wasn't a balance sheet even."
A shake-up included the abrupt resignation of David DeYoung, who was replaced as president of the fair association by board member Mike Richards.
"Right now, clearing our debt is the number-one priority," Richards said. "We have established a working budget and forecast."
An admitted lover of spreadsheets, Vyfvinkel has spent her first few weeks weeding through financial statements and other documents.
"I am organizing everything I can get my hands on," she said. "We're getting everything in line so we can really start growing."
To do that, the association this month plans to close on a $6.5 million loan from a local bank. That involves restructuring the principal of an outstanding loan, as well as about $4.5 million in new borrowing to pay contractors.
That's $1 million less than it had been seeking from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a complex process that is ongoing. That means construction projects, including an exhibition building, are on hold. Volunteer help is sought to finish the ticket booth at the main entrance.
Having a business manger with Vyfvinkel's expertise and contacts will not translate immediately to big shows and a bounty of year-round use, Richards said, but the foundation is being set.
"I love the idea it really is a community gathering place," Vyfvinkel said. "I really feel I can make an impact here."