For five weeks each summer, (July 13th – August 12th, this year) the Orange County Fair is held at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. The theme for this year’s fair is “Free Your Inner Farmer.” But, this year’s Fair, will look exactly like the Fair has for the last few years, but what it won’t look like is Orange County. The Orange County Fair has descended into a stereotype of a generic midwestern county or state fair, and anyone who was dropped into the Orange County Fair would be hard pressed to tell if they were at the Missouri State Fair or the Texas State Fair.
Why doesn’t the OC Fair reflect and represent the culture, cuisine, art, history, and people of Orange County? Why can’t a person buy a good paneer tikka, or bowl of phô, or a vegetarian lunch at the OC Fair. Why in a county that was, and continues to be, a well-spring of creativity in music and is the home of not just one, but two companies that popularized the electric guitar, is there so little focus on local music and musicians? Why is a celebration of the county’s rich and varied ethnic tapestry not front-and-center? In short, why doesn’t the Orange County Fair look like Orange County?
The answer is partly fear and a lack of drive by the Fair administration, but ultimately it is the result of a lack of resolve and exercise of control by the local board that is supposed to run the Fair and the Fairgrounds.
First there is fear, The Orange County Fair and Event Center is a year round operation, but more than 80% of its operating revenue comes from the Fair, and especially the parking and alcohol sales at the Fair. The management of the Fair is fearful that if they do anything radically different, the public won’t come. Of course, the 32nd District Agricultural Association, the state body that actually puts on the Orange County Fair is sitting on cash reserves which exceed all of the money that will be brought in by the one year’s Fair. In other words, they have the cash to take some risks.
The second factor is a lack of drive. Although most in the public are unaware, there is a well established “Fair-Industrial Complex.” This complex of companies have evolved to service the circuit of fairs throughout the country. It is frankly easier for someone working at a Fairgrounds to just go with companies that are literally, catering to fairs, rather than try to reach out to local businesses. That is one reason why, to just use food concessionaires as an example, only 6 of the 44 food concessionaires at the fair are actually from Orange County. It is also why half of the area taken up by food booths is accounted for by eight companies, none from Orange County, and one company, Juicys of Longboat Key, Florida, accounts for 1/8th of the food vendor space at the Fair.
The success of these companies is not an accident. In the western United States and Canada, many of them are members of a trade association, known as Western Fairs Association. Like many trade associations, Western Fairs provides resources, coordination, and legislative lobbying for companies that are in the business of servicing fairs. Obviously, its in Western Fair’s interest for its members to get the contracts providing services to Fairs, rather than local non-members and at this year’s Orange County Fair, over 70% of the food concessionaires, the midway operator, and many others, including the pony rides will be provided by Western Fairs members.
Western Fair’s influence is especially strong, because they don’t just represent companies servicing fairs, they represent both sides of the business relationship. Western Fairs is the trade association both for the fair vendors and the fairs themselves. The Orange County Fairgrounds is a member of Western Fairs. Further, Western Fairs has developed a very close relationship with the Fairs & Exhibitions branch of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
So close that the official state Fairs and Exhibitions Branch website includes a link to the Western Fairs website. And, yes, that means that the Orange County Fairgrounds is a dues paying member of organization that just inducted its long time lobbyist into its Hall of Fame, touting his success in getting the State of California to pass a bill, AB1499, that allocates funds from state sales tax to Fairgrounds.
“So how can we free ourselves from this quagmire and get more Orange County in our Orange County Fair?” We have to demand it from our local Fair Board: Barbara Bagneris (Orange), Robert Ruiz (Irvine), Ashleigh Aitken (Anaheim), Sandra Cervantes (Irvine), Douglas La Belle (Newport Beach), Gerardo Mouet (Santa Ana), and Newton Pham (Fountain Valley). With two recent vacancies on the Fair Board, we also need to let Governor Brown’s Appointments Secretary, Mona Pasquil Rogers (email@example.com) know that the public wants those seats filled with people who will represent Orange County’s interests. This is the only mechanism for maintaining local control, because, although, the Governor has near total discretion in who serves on this Board, every member must be a resident of Orange County. If we want local control of our Orange County Fair, we have to insist that this local board exercise that control, despite the vested interests of Western Fairs; its ally, the Fair and Exhibitions Branch of the California Dept. of Food & Agriculture; and the permanent staff at the Fairgrounds. The Board cannot continue to take the easy road and defer to the staff at the Fairgrounds. We have to demand that they serve Orange County.
Vincent M. Pollmeier is a former NASA system engineer, a patent lawyer practicing in Santa Ana, and a Director of Friends and Neighbors of the Orange County Fairgrounds, a non-profit group working for an OC Fair and Fairgrounds that is for, and of, Orange County.
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