State fair loses its revered director
By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
Authorities are shocked by his resignation. A contract expiration and death also leave the midway without a leader.
Published April 23, 2004
TAMPA - Rick Vymlatil, who helped bring respect and profitability to a state fair organization stained by infighting and red ink, will be absent when the midway reopens in 2005.
Also missing will be Ed Gregory, a businessman who survived a bank fraud conviction and an investigation into a presidential pardon, and went on to earn praise for his operation of the $1-million-a-year midway at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
Vymlatil, 54, the executive director of the Florida State Fair Authority, submitted his resignation from the $108,700 job this week. He is returning to Palm Beach County to be closer to family and to take the position of president of the South Florida Fair.
Gregory, the colorful and controversial owner of United Shows of America, died on April 11, Easter Sunday, at his home in Smyrna, Tenn. Gregory, whose contract to oversee midway games and rides at the Florida State Fair expired this year, succumbed to pulmonary lung disease. He was 66.
Vymlatil's resignation, submitted at an authority meeting in Tallahassee on Wednesday, caught Fair Authority members by surprise.
"It was a shock to all of us," said authority member Joe Voskerichian, the executive director of the Gold Shield Foundation, which aids families of fallen police officers and firefighters. "It's a big loss. We hate to see him go."
"Rick's been great," said Richard Dakin, spokesman for an ad hoc group representing several neighborhoods near the fairgrounds. "He talks to us. He cooperates with us.
"It used to be they'd just tell you to mind your own business."
Prior to 1995, the independent board overseeing the 319-acre state fairgrounds off Interstate 4 was marked by internal squabbling and money problems.
Fair Authority officials violated expense account rules. They handed out phony fair attendance numbers. One authority member was ousted for being a crony of Gregory. Another paid an investigator to dig up dirt on a fair official who later sued the board for discrimination.
Then, in 1995, the Legislature placed the Fair Authority under the direction of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. New York Yankees boss George Steinbrenner was appointed authority chairman. Vymlatil was named executive director.
The Fair Authority, then in debt by $3.5-million, now has reserves of about $3-million, according to authority controller Giles Ellis.
"There was quite a bit of turmoil and laxity in spending," said Ellis. "The fair has stabilized now. It's been a huge turnaround."
Neighbors say they regret Vymlatil's departure, especially now that the fairgrounds is to be home to Clear Channel Entertainment's 20,000-seat amphitheater. The concert venue is scheduled for completion in July.
"It scares me that some new guy is going to come in and take over with all that's going on," said Dakin.
Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson and Fair Authority officials will select a replacement for Vymlatil after a national search, said agriculture spokesman Terence McElroy.
Vymlatil's last day on the job is May 28.
Agriculture and fair officials have begun studying how to handle the midway with Gregory gone. McElroy said options include the authority's taking over midway operations, hiring a variety of operators or bidding out the midway to find one operator, as was done under Gregory's United Shows.
In late 2000, and at the advice of Vymlatil, then-Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford extended the midway contact at the Florida State Fair to Gregory on a no-bid basis. Crawford, who had received campaign contributions from Gregory, resigned his Cabinet post soon after to take a $200,000-a-year job running the Florida Department of Citrus.
Gregory's contract extension came nine months after President Clinton pardoned Gregory and his wife, Vonna Jo Gregory, of convictions for bank fraud. The charges stemmed from accusations that the couple drained the assets of a small Alabama bank in 1982 to make loans to their friends and to their own businesses.
Fearing the felony conviction might make him ineligible for new midway contracts, Gregory sought the presidential pardon through a man he had hired as a consultant: Tony Rodham, the brother of the first lady at the time, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Rodham helped arrange for United Shows to offer midway games and rides at the White House in 1998. Despite the Justice Department's strong recommendation against the pardons, Clinton signed them in March 2000.
An investigation into the pardons turned up no criminal wrongdoing. Gregory said he paid Rodham nothing to seek the pardons. Rodham said he received nothing.
Gregory died with his midway companies owing $47-million and seeking protection from creditors in federal bankruptcy court in Tennessee.
Vymlatil kept the Fair Authority apprised of the bankruptcy, filed in August 2002, while Gregory still had two years to run on his Florida State Fair contract.
Competing carnival operators complained about being shut out by Gregory's contract, but authority members seemed satisfied that Gregory was still running a clean midway.
"We worked with the bankruptcy trustee to see if everything was done correctly, and it was," said Ellis, the authority controller.
"We always felt pretty good about Ed's midway," said Voskerichian. "He was every responsive to us."
- Information from the Associated Press and from Times researcher Kitty Bennett was used in this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at 226-3422 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified April 23, 2004, 01:20:38]
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