On Display

Home Show Celebrates 40 Years of Building, Growing and Changing

By Mike Archer | Posted on 03.23.15 – Diversions, People & Places

The 1970’s featured one of the first growth movements in Frederick Count, as well as its backlash. As some suburban communities tightened restrictions on development, builders and families looked to the rolling farmland to the north and west as the site of the next great expansion in Maryland.

Concerned that a domino effect of regulation could lead to greater development restrictions locally, members of the Frederick County Building Industry Association (FCBIA) looked into ways to increase support for their organization and to show they had a voice. “I knew we had to do something to get the numbers up and get the political power,” said Bob Hilton, a retired builder who twice served as the organization’s president.

What Hilton and other builders came up with was the first FCBIA Home Show, which debuted in 1975 and will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year at the Frederick County Fairgrounds on March 21 and 22. The show has become a must-visit for thousands of homeowners and prospective homeowners wanting to see the latest ideas from 170 builders, contractors, suppliers and other vendors.

Visitors to the show can meet experts and learn about the newest trends and products that are available for everything from kitchens and baths to closets and garages. Those with an eye on an outdoor oasis can check out hot tubs, paving ideas and landscaping displays with elaborate water features and hightech lighting.

But the beginnings of the Home Show were not nearly so ambitious, or dazzling. That first event, held at the Frederick Armory, cost the association $1,500 to organize; the money was guaranteed by Hilton and other builders who gambled that vendor fees would recover costs. “I said, ‘You give me $1,500 and I will draw 2,000 people to a pig fight!’” Hilton recalls with a laugh.

He was right. That first year attracted a couple thousand visitors who perused 70 vendor booths, including displays from nonprofit organizations, an element of the show that has remained to this day. That first year also began the tradition of not charging an entrance fee for visitors.

The original plan was to charge 50 cents per person, but that ended soon after Hilton opened the doors of the armory and was greeted by a tax collector who informed him he needed to pay a tax for every ticket sold. He didn’t want the hassle. From then on, the event has been free to attend.

Over the years, the show grew in scope and size, moving into the fairgrounds after the inaugural event and staying there ever since. The show has always been the third weekend of March, a time perfectly suited for many contractors emerging from the winter slowdown.

It also comes right after the International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas, where many local contractors learn about the industry’s latest trends. “So they have a lot of new ideas coming into spring,” says Denise Jacoby, executive officer of the FCBIA.

But even with a late-March date, the event has had to sidestep its share of winter’s last gasps from time to time. Bo Carlisle, another former FCBIA president, recalls the year a snowstorm shutdown local businesses and left show organizers scrambling to clear parking lots and provide bus transportation for visitors.

“We did quite a show that year because we had the only game in town that weekend,” Carlisle recalls. Organizers believe one of the reasons for the success of the show is that rather than be driven by national manufacturers and suppliers—as many other home shows are—the local event has been, from the start, about connecting the local builders and contractors with the consumers.

In fact, many builders say up to 30 percent of their annual business leads come directly from the show. Meanwhile, many customers come motivated by a specific dream home, addition, renovation or other projects. “They bring their plans. They know what they want,” Jacoby says. “They come in with a project in mind.”

There have been several changes to the show over the years, most notably the addition of the “Builder Olympics,” where teams of high school students compete in various construction trades, like masonry and carpentry. “Featuring the skills of our future workforce is very important to us,” Jacoby says.

Another change has been the different types of contractors featured over the years. The show has built a reputation for its elaborate displays by various companies, especially landscapers who start creating their unique spaces several days before the show opens.

Also, there is now a greater variety of businesses at the show, extending beyond the traditional contractors and into areas like energy efficiency and other trends. “The show’s become much more diverse,” Jacoby says. It also has become much more of an effort to organize, with staff, association members and others working almost all year on some aspect of the show—a far cry from the first event that was put together with $1,500 in a matter of months. “We are already working on next year’s event,” Jacoby says.