There are things Rusty Volk won’t do.
The Northern Wisconsin State Fair director won’t settle. He won’t take no for an answer. And he definitely won’t slow down — especially in the summer when events are scheduled back to back for him and his team.
Ten years ago, when Volk took over the fairgrounds, the main event was the Northern Wisconsin State Fair. But it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Volk had a vision.
“I wanted to improve facilities — especially by updating restrooms and infrastructure like electrical, water, sewer and roads — to meet the ever-changing needs of the fair and events,” he said.
Then, he did just that.
Not that he tries to compete, but with so many other events going on in the Chippewa Valley, Volk is still able to pull in $12 million throughout the year. That money brought in through tourism supports local businesses and tax revenues for Chippewa County.
The financial impact is important, but the enjoyment that event-goers receive from events at the fairgrounds keeps Volk thinking of new ways to bring people in.
Then til now
What do a LEGO build contest, antique show and sale, monster truck show and bull riding challenge have in common? They’re all available at the Northern Wisconsin State Fairgrounds throughout the year. Volk has enticed nearly every kind of event imaginable to use the Chippewa Falls fairgrounds.
But it wasn’t without challenge.
Volk and the fairgrounds board came up with a strategic plan and goals.
It was faced first with generating funds to replace the electrical grid throughout the fairgrounds. By successfully completing this project, events at the fairgrounds grew with the updated electrical infrastructure.
Greg Hoffman, Chippewa Falls mayor, and Volk both began their service to the city in 2008. Hoffman remembers Volk’s vigor.
“He’s great at working with the community,” said Hoffman, a member of the fairgrounds board. “Rusty has a good vision. We’ve all worked together to put in the new stage and new seating.”
In 2007, though, it was a different story.
The then-owners and operators of the fair were nearing retirement and ready to sell. After receiving an offer from a developer who wasn’t interesting in keeping the fair, the nonprofit Chippewa Foundation stepped up to buy the grounds.
Now it’s flourishing.
Volk said the reason for the immense growth is because of the foresight and planning – and how he was raised.
“I have a farming background and have always taken an optimistic approach to any challenge,” he said. “The fair event and new events have been possible because we created a long-range facilities concept plan that was developed to accomplish our strategic plan.
“I don’t believe anyone anticipated how quickly we have been able to generate support for implementing the plan and grow new events on the fairgrounds.”
Although Volk built up events hosted at the fairgrounds, the Northern Wisconsin State Fair is one of the oldest, if not the oldest event in the Chippewa Valley that is still in existence today.
According to information published from records at the Chippewa County Historical Society, Wisconsin promoted the state fair held in southern Wisconsin to advance better farming practices.
In the late 1800s, Chippewa Valley citizens drafted a charter to create the Northern Wisconsin State Fair since it was impractical to think northwestern Wisconsin residents would travel to southeastern Wisconsin to attend the fair. The Northern Wisconsin State Fair was established in 1897 by the state to “improve agriculture, horticulture and mechanical and household arts.”
As Wisconsin became more urbanized, the Northern Wisconsin State Fair reflected the progression of industry and technology.
In actuality, the Northern Wisconsin State Fair was the epitome of entertainment in the early 1900s for the last 100-plus years. As the Chippewa Valley grows, more arts and entertainment venues find their way to the area.
As that happens, the fairgrounds and its leaders have found a way to keep all of these events relevant to the changing population, Mayor Hoffman said.
“The fairgrounds have a tremendous impact on the community with different fun activities rather than have it be one-dimensional,” he said. “It’s not just for the fairgrounds to make money, but it’s to add to the quality of life in the Chippewa Valley.
“One hundred thousand people go to the fair, but there are numerous other events that appeal to other people.”
Boost for nonprofits
Aside from the people who enjoy the entertainment, Volk hits on another bonus of being able to host events at the fairgrounds.
“Nonprofits utilizing the fairgrounds generate funds supporting their individual missions in support of youth, education, scholarships, elderly and underprivileged within our region,” he said. “Additionally, events provide a better quality of life for employers and employees.”
It also gives people in the Chippewa Valley an opportunity to try something they’ve never tried before — like Northwoods Blues Fest in late June.
Hoffman said it’s not his kind of music. But it did pique his curiosity in 2017 — its first year at the fairgrounds.
Because the event was available to him in the Chippewa Valley, Hoffman and his wife attended.
“We didn’t plan on staying long — maybe one or two hours,” Hoffman said. “We were having such a good time. I couldn’t get my wife to leave. We finally left at 8 p.m.
“It’s not the music I listen to every day, but it’s something different.”
Hoffman said having different fairgrounds events, and events at the Confluence in Eau Claire, and music at Riverfront in Chippewa Falls and River Prairie development in Altoona — all of that brings people to the Chippewa Valley to work and raise a family.
“We are not in competition with anyone,” Hoffman said of Chippewa Falls. “The Confluence is going to add quality of life in the Chippewa Valley. If it will keep young families in our community … that is exactly what we’re trying to do.
“We used to just be streets and streets of bars,” he said. “Going out to a bar on occasion is great, but if that’s the only thing you have to do — eh. We need a number of different experiences.”
As Volk geared up for another 100,000-person event for the 2018 Northern Wisconsin State Fair, he looked to the future.
“I plan to continue building and promoting the Northern Wisconsin State Fairgrounds until our master concept plan is completed,” Volk said. “It’s a family affair, and I welcome all families to join us in creating the best venue possible for the next generation.”
“I have a farming background and have always taken an optimistic approach to any challenge. The fair event and new events have been possible because we created a long-range facilities concept plan that was developed to accomplish our strategic plan.” Rusty Volk, Northern Wisconsin State Fair director