'Meet me at the fair' adds fresh meaning for St. Louis on the 4th

As millions of visitors flock to what St. Louisans call ''America's biggest birthday party,'' enjoying free entertainment while surrounded by advertising messages, it's hard to tell where business stops and pleasure begins.

This particular party, the fifth annual ''VP Fair,'' certainly appears to be good for St. Louis - a city that has received its share of negative publicity in recent years. Besides attracting an estimated 5 million visitors, the fair, which began last weekend and runs through July 4, has been visited by the Goodyear blimp and the NBC ''Today'' show.

While here, it's easy for visitors to see the widespread construction and rehabilitation going on in St. Louis. The old Union Station railway depot is being transformed by the Rouse Corporation into a hotel and shopping complex. A four-story shopping mall, St. Louis Centre, has been erected downtown. The corporate headquarters of Southwestern Bell, now nearing completion, will be the tallest building in the city. And a number of inner-city neighborhoods are undergoing renovation.

The VP fair is also good business for nonprofit organizations like the local Sierra Club, which turns its members into lemon-squeezing entrepreneurs for three days to earn somewhere between $5,000 and $9,000 - about 80 percent of the group's annual budget.

But the chief executives of some of St. Louis's largest companies, who spent countless hours organizing the fair and raised $2.2 million in private contributions to fund it, say they did it mainly for fun. Some 300 volunteers worked year-round to plan the fair, and an estimated 18,000 have taken part during the celebration itself. Many CEOs spent about half their time on the fair during June, estimated Clarence C. Barksdale, the fair's general chairman and the CEO of Centerre Bank.

''If you want to get any business done in this town on the Friday afternoon before the fair, you can't do it,'' he quipped.

Chuck Wallace, the fair's executive director and one of only three full-time employees, said this year's fair cost about $3 million to produce. Donations provided $2.2 million, and Mr. Wallace expects to make $1.2 million more by taking a percentage of all food and drink sales. The profit will be used to build a landscaped promenade on the riverfront, he said. Donations came from 32 ''major corporate sponsors'' (who had their names or wares displayed on the riverfront fairgrounds) and about 480 other companies and individuals.

Out-of-town visitors should spend more than $90 million in St. Louis at the fair, according to figures provided by the St. Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association. Such spending would create 1,750 jobs and generate $270 million in indirect economic benefit - all of which would greatly benefit a city trying to recover some of the jobs and income lost in the past decade.

Of course, there is no accurate way to count the fair visitors. Since there are no turnstiles, police use a grid system to make three crowd estimates a day, then add them together. Studies have shown that the crowd actually turns over 3. 5 times a day, fair officials say. They counted 900,000 fairgoers in 1981, 3.5 million in '82, and 4.5 million last year. This year, 2.2 million came in the first two days, but Wednesday, the final day, is expected to have the biggest crowds.

Bob Stolz, a local advertising executive, who is the fair's publicity chairman, noted Saturday as the fair opened: ''We feel we've now arrived as an event because the Goodyear blimp has arrived. We've invited them every year but this is the first time it's been here.''

The VP Fair didn't start as a publicity vehicle, as a giant corporate sponsor billboard, or as a charity fund-raiser. The fair began because the ''Veiled Prophet'' organization, an elite social group that sponsors an annual debutante ball and parade, had a problem.

During the 1970s, interest in the October parade had waned. So the group decided to move the parade ahead three months and combine it with an Independence Day celebration. The concept of a free festival with big-name entertainers proved popular, but not until this year, according to Wallace, did the organization commit itself to making the VP Fair an annual event.

The fair was not without growing pains. The first year, the fireworks fell into the Mississippi River. Two years ago, rain was combined with heavy crowds to make a mudhole out of the Gateway Arch grounds.

This year there have been no major problems, and the VP group says the birthday party is here to stay.

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