Ornellas, others take up challenge of saving county fair
by Sam Matthews
Sep 27, 2013 | 6281 views | 0 0 comments | 558 558 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I walked into the Winners off-rack betting building in the San Joaquin County Fair’s parking lot Monday afternoon, Sept. 23, and I liked what I saw.

The place was packed with some 200 people — all interested in getting the county fair back on its feet. I knew right away there was major interest in the future of the struggling fair.

Over in one corner, I spotted two familiar faces — Leroy Ornellas and Ken Yasui, Tracyites who both had been longtime members of the fair’s board of directors.

“Well, just when I thought I was all through, I’ve got myself a new job,” said Leroy, who last year ended a 10-year run on the board of supervisors.

Leroy, who earlier had served a decade on the fair board, including two terms as president, is now chairman of the entertainment committee of a task force formed Monday night among those present at the meeting called by fair directors.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Leroy said Tuesday, a day after the gathering. “We don’t have any money to hire big-name acts, and what can we do to bring people to the fair to see some good acts at reasonable prices? There’s no single silver bullet, that’s for sure.”

In “the old days,” the fair had name entertainers perform free each evening in an outdoor amphitheater, but those days are gone.

This year’s fair, which had a five-day run in June, had low-cost acts performing free of charge in the midway area and several better-grade acts and special events with paid tickets in front of the grandstand at the horse track.

It didn’t seem that either effort drew good-sized crowds.

“We’ve started kicking around all kinds of ideas — barbecue grill-offs, high school band competition, return of ‘World of Outlaws’ auto racing, all the possibilities, but who knows?” Leroy said.

He noted that his committee will meet again in the coming week to continue wrestling with all the ways of boosting the entertainment appeal of next year’s fair. It won’t be easy, assuming there will be a fair.

Nanette Martin, the Tracyite who currently serves as president of the fair board, said she was proud of Leroy for taking on one of the key chairmanships in the effort to bring the fair back to life.

“I was really encouraged when I saw the crowd Monday night,” she told me a day later. “It showed there is real interest in helping the fair survive, and at least that’s a good start.”

I asked her how the fair can be promoted without a marketing budget, and she acknowledged that it will be a real challenge. Efforts to publicize this year’s fair in June were minimal, and that may be an overstatement.

We agreed that again involving the chambers of commerce throughout the county has to be a first step in boosting participation. Community exhibits, once a fair hallmark, need to return.

I keep thinking that the community exhibits should not only feature agricultural products — and they must be a mainstay — but also products manufactured and distributed in industrial locations throughout the county. Fair-goers could be surprised at the range of economic activity in the county.

At the outset of Monday’s meeting, Nanette introduced Brian May, a veteran California State Fair official and a county fair consultant.

He said a larger percentage of the county’s population is outside Stockton, but those areas account for less than half of fair attendance.

“We have to do a better job of outreach to other parts of the county,” he said.

That touches on an underlying problem facing the fair over the years. Too many people, especially those in towns outside Stockton, believe the fair’s location in south Stockton has given it a reputation of being in an unsafe area. Decades-old incidents still haunt the fair, but there have been no incidents in recent years and security has improved. Still, the negative image is difficult to shake, and more people have to feel comfortable going to the fair.

Sheriff Steve Moore was at Monday’s meeting, and he told me Tuesday that he has some new ideas.

The renewed interest in 4-H and FFA livestock entries, spruced-up grounds and improved security form existing positive elements for the fair’s resurgence. But those foundations need to support new programs that involve more people — and more communities. Committees launched earlier this week have their work cut out to come up with ways to make that happen.

• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at shm@tracypress.com.

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