Officials boot vendor for low prices at fair
By Kathy Chaffin and Scott Jenkinsnews@salisburypost.com
A Salisbury woman who set up her concessions trailer to help the Immanuel Lutheran Church youth group raise money was evicted from the Rowan County Fair Wednesday night for refusing to increase her prices.
“I just don’t understand why it’s so hard in today’s world to be fair to people,” said Rhonda Stirewalt. “Just because you’ve got a large group of people gathered in one place doesn’t mean that you want to price-gouge everybody.”
Stirewalt, a teacher at Erwin Middle School, has been selling concessions at area festivals and events for five years now, oftentimes for various community causes. Last year, she had both of her concessions trailers at the fair.
Junior Honor Society members from Erwin helped Stirewalt man one, selling cotton candy and caramel corn to raise $1,000 for Nazareth Children’s Home. Members of Immanuel Lutheran in Rockwell sold tea and lemonade from the other for $1 a cup, raising $1,300 for the church’s Vacation Bible School.
Stirewalt recalled several people coming by last year saying that they needed to sell the concessions for “such and such,” but she didn’t know who they were. To her knowledge, none were fair officials.
This year, when she submitted an application and paid the $400 fee to sell concessions again, Stirewalt said there was nothing in the paperwork about specific prices. It did say “prices must be within reasonable limits of vendors,” she said.
Her father, Donald Stirewalt, said the fair contract is “so vague” it doesn’t inform vendors about price requirements. The document asks vendors how much they plan to charge for their products and his daughter indicated she’d be charging “the same as last year,” he said.
And that’s exactly what she did, Rhonda said. When the concessions trailer opened for business Monday afternoon, bags of cotton candy were $3 and smaller canisters of cotton candy $1.50 each or four for $5. Tea and lemonade sold for $1.
The first evening, Stirewalt, who was assisted by church members who volunteered to help, said a female vendor came by and made a sarcastic comment about the prices being too low.
On Tuesday evening, she said Fair Manager Johnny Love told her she was going to have to do something about her tea and lemonade prices and that she needed to look around at the prices of other vendors and raise them accordingly.
When Stirewalt pointed out that other vendors were selling tea and lemonade for $1, she said, “He said he wasn’t going to argue with me.”
On Wednesday, she said church members manning the trailer told her fair officials stopped by repeatedly, saying the prices needed to be higher. When one insisted that they raise the price of cotton candy to $6 a bag, church members said they didn’t have the authority to change the price without Stirewalt’s permission and pulled them from the counter.
A little later, Stirewalt said they told her another fair official came by and said they needed to raise the price of their tea to $2.25 and their lemonade to $2.50. All this time, she said other vendors were continuing to sell tea and lemonade for $1.
The matter came to a head at a vendors’ meeting Wednesday night.
When they asked about the drink prices, Donald Stirewalt said, “Mr. Love sort of went off and wouldn’t listen to anything we had to say.”
As they were leaving, Love handed them a written eviction notice.
The Rev. Bruce Sheeks, the pastor at Immanuel, accompanied Rhonda and Donald Stirewalt to the meeting at her request. When he told Love he wanted to make two points about the prices, Sheeks said the fair manager told him to shut up.
Love said Rhonda Stirewalt knew the prices she charged for her cotton candy and drinks violated her vendor contract and she kept charging those prices anyway.
The contracts prohibit vendors from charging excessively high prices, he said, or “trying to cut-throat” by charging far less than others selling food. “You’re supposed to stay within reason, and by reason we mean 50 cents or $1 of everyone else, of what they’re charging,” he said.
He said Stirewalt was charging less than half of what others charged for the same products. She charged $1 for a regular bag of cotton candy, while others charged $4, and she charged $1 for a 32-ounce drink that cost $4 or more if bought from other vendors.
Love said the higher prices are in line with those charged at other fairs and events such as the Faith Fourth of July. Many of the vendors, he said, have high overhead costs because selling the products is their livelihood and they invest heavily in trucks and trailers, bear fuel costs for traveling and pay employees.
He said Stirewalt charged similarly lower prices last year and fair organizers let her operate the entire week, though it angered other vendors. This year, he said, Stirewalt had to sign the standard contract plus a handwritten note specifically saying she wouldn’t undercut other vendors by so much.
Love said Stirewalt got permission to sell canisters of cotton candy for $1 because no one else sold those. But when told she would have to charge at least $3 for a bag of cotton candy, Love said, Stirewalt began charging that much for “jumbo bags,” about the same as charging $1 for a regular bag.
Vendors employed by the midway operator charge $7 for a jumbo bag of cotton candy, and that’s too much, Love said. But other local vendors, also raising money for community groups and good causes, charge $5 or $6 and can’t compete with someone selling at Stirewalt’s prices.
Love said he finally went to Doug Smith, the Fair Association’s attorney, for advice.
He said Smith told him to talk with Stirewalt once more and if she didn’t comply with his request, to ask her to leave the fair for breach of contract.
Love said he tried twice Wednesday night to convince Stirewalt to change her prices and, when she refused, banished her from the fair.
“It would be different if we had not already addressed this problem last year,” Love said. “I just wish they would understand. I really do, because I like to keep local people here.”
But there was no way to let Stirewalt keep selling at the same prices and keep other vendors when it’s already “too hard to find ones that actually keep the place clean and do a good job,” Love said.
“I can’t keep replacing vendors for one person,” he said. “… I want to make everybody happy, but I really don’t know how.”
The experience was upsetting for Rhonda Stirewalt and her parents, as well as the church members who helped with the concessions trailer.
Donald Stirewalt said they were treated unfairly by Rowan County Fair officials. “And they’re really not professional people to work with,” he said.
Sheeks said raising the price of concessions would have caused Immanuel members to compromise their principles.
“We didn’t want to go up on our prices because we felt like the fair should be for children,” he said. “People should have fun there, and I’m afraid our group didn’t see it as a fun experience at all.”
Rhonda Stirewalt’s mother, Stella, said she was very disappointed in the fair officials’ decision to evict her daughter’s concession trailer from the fairgrounds.
The ones who suffered the most, she said, were the youth who weren’t able to continue raising money to go to a Christian rally in New Orleans next year.
By the time they deducted the $400 vendor fee and the cost of supplies from the three nights’ proceeds, Rhonda Stirewalt said they only raised about $80.