The Orange County Fair, at its core, is meant to be a throwback for visitors to the region’s rich farming roots and community history.
People wouldn’t know it today, say some of the fair’s closest observers, as what’s become one of the country’s 10 largest is now known for thrill rides and fried food novelties that are somewhat customary for fairs across the U.S.
Editor’s Note: Read our other OC Fair 2021 opening story: The OC Fair is Back: What to Know Before You Go
Critics have long called out a marked absence in vendors who actually come from Orange County — vendors who represent the region’s diverse communities and could expose residents to different cultures and walks of life.
For example, the last time the fair was open for in-person activities in 2019, only six of that fair season’s 100-plus food and beverage stands were operated by companies from Orange County.
That’s according to data provided by the 32nd District Agricultural Association — the state’s official designation for the fairgrounds — in response to Voice of OC questions.
Fair spokesperson Terry Moore, in response to questions Tuesday, said the agency and its Governor-appointed Fair Board directors have since increased outreach to local businesses, restaurant associations, chambers of commerce and the OC Business Council.
“This year has been very challenging for many businesses so we realize that this will be an evolution,” Moore said, adding that local businesses are also encouraged to apply for next year’s fair and the ones after.
But as the OC Fair reopens this Friday in person, for the first time in nearly two years, persisting debates over the fair’s identity and role go beyond fried potato twists.
The fair’s ongoing teeter between a Disneyland-like commercial venture and modest community showcase — and new opportunities to make lower-cost farm activities available to every resident — could reshape its image and role for all communities in Orange County.
For example, the Fair Board in September will discuss a new operating contract for the fairgrounds’ equestrian center, which fair officials say could be a chance to “enhance” horse riding opportunities for the general public.
Former OC Fair CEO Doug Lofstrom’s May report on the equestrian center, commissioned by fair officials, raised the possibility of more youth outreach programs to get more local kids some hands-on experience there.
Similar efforts include the “Ranch After School Program” at Centennial Farm, where 4th and 5th grade students from local school districts can learn the trades of farming, care for animals and learn about agriculture’s role in sustaining quality of life.
But current exploration of enhancing public access at the equestrian center hasn’t come without debate.
This year, some equestrians have come out to speak at board meetings with fears that too much public access could threaten the safety of both horses and human visitors who aren’t properly educated.
“Unsupervised public access anywhere, it comes with some safety and security concerns,” said one speaker, Leigh-Ann Kazolas, at a May 27 meeting. “Some of us around the property do see this unrestrictive public access as a challenge and it can be scary, but we do have numerous solutions.”
Reggie Mundekis, a fairgrounds watchdog, at a January board meeting said the center benefits “a few people who have the money and resources to afford horses, and we need to open it up to the rest of the community.”
“We need to have low-cost programs for community members to gain access to the facility.”
Gibran Stout, founder of the OC Vaulting club at the equestrian center, said she supports the idea of enhancing access through more programs, adding there will always be concern in equestrians’ mind that the center’s long-disputed existence could come back up for debate.
Thus, she said, more educational programs and enhanced public access to the equestrian center — to show people the value in its existence — may help to address both those concerns about its safety and future:
“At the end of the day, we all agree this is really important for the community and for future generations. We all want to make sure it’s here for the next generation.”
Meanwhile, other concerns linger about the fairgrounds’ role in serving the public.
“It was about a decade ago they started treating it as more of a private, profitable facility than a State of California-owned property,” said Anaheim resident and local vendor Mike Robbins.
He notes that, despite the fair’s reputation for its relative affordability compared to other fairs in Southern California, things like parking fees have gone up over the years:
“The more you raise the fees, the farther away people will park to access the fairgrounds. You see some people walking sometimes from a mile away.”
Fair officials last hiked ticket prices back in late 2016, but only for weekend admission. Another ticket price hike was on the table in 2019, but officials backed off.
“This is a property people should be able to access. It shouldn’t be like Disneyland. It’s a public entity and should be run for the public’s benefit. It should be accessible to the public, not just geared around how much money you can make off the public.”Anaheim resident and local vendor Mike Robbins
Though things may be changing from the type of leadership the fairgrounds has historically seen, says Reggie Mundekis.
“I think they’re starting to strike a balance. I’m being diplomatic here,” she said in a Tuesday phone interview.
For years, Mundekis and her late partner, Vincent Pollmeier, were among the closest watchers of the state-owned fairgrounds’ day-to-day activities, policy making and governance.
They witnessed high-ranking officials come and go, often not under the best circumstances.
The two spoke out against the fairgrounds land sale attempt, and raised questions over the years about audits, shaky financials, ethics issues and possible pushes to further commercialize the property.
Recently, Mundekis said, “there’s more respect for the agricultural activities than there was in the previous administration, where things like Centennial Farm and the ranch program are seen as a good thing, a drawing card for people, and are being supported at a board and staff level.”
In 2019, a Voice of OC investigation revealed that the fair’s former CEO Kathy Kramer sat on the fundraising board for Vanguard University, a private Christian college across the street from the fairgrounds, which the fair under her staff leadership was sponsoring financially without the Fair Board’s objection.
It was just one of a few controversies and financial questions facing the agency under Kramer, who was later fired by the Fair Board.
In her wake, then-vice president Michele Richards took over as CEO — and in the time since, Mundekis said on Tuesday, some things have indeed changed:
“One of the things I’m able to do with CEO Richards, for example, is ask a question and get an answer.”
Then came the 2020 summer of protests against police violence and in support of social justice.
As marches overtook cities around the fairgrounds, directors Ashleigh Aitken and Barbera Bagneris pushed their colleagues to establish a committee that would look into making the fair more diverse and inclusive, partly responding to watchdogs’ years-long complaints.
But that committee’s purpose became mired in confusion and controversy over the fairgrounds’ flying of the LGBTQ+ Pride flag year-round.
Some residents mounted a campaign to get it taken down, saying it made them feel excluded, which the Fair Board this year ultimately rejected in what may have been one of the most visible, public discussions of the LGBTQ+ community’s place in the county — and at the fairgrounds — in years.
Since then, Fair Board directors have become more vocal about local representation at the fair, with the board’s newest director, Nicholas Kovacevich, for instance asking Richards in January whether they could prioritize local vendors when applying for space at the annual summer festivities.
Richards said that would be up to the board, but acknowledged that “there’s not a criteria that someone has to be from Orange County or, you know, have to be from the local area.”
“A lot of our businesses here in Orange County were hit very hard during this pandemic,” said Director Robert Ruiz at that meeting. “We could bring some of them into the Fair and help them, you know, get back on their feet. I mean, what better way to do that than to have them be a vendor at our Fair?”
“I know it might not be doable this year, but in the future moving forward … we could do that. Because those were some of the suggestions that we got on (a community survey), to have more vendors here from Orange County.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.