Editorial: State fair, alas, keeps clinging to old formula

From the Sacramento Bee - August 4, 2012

They haven't responded in any detail to an article in The Bee this week in which local public relations consultant Doug Elmets echoed many by saying that the fair needs a major overhaul. "Everything is so predictable," he told The Bee's Anita Creamer. "If you've been there once, you've pretty much done it."


Although Big Fun for some, the California State Fair just ended another ho-hum run.

You'd think that might prompt fair officials to embrace some fresh ideas. Yet, as usual, they are retreating into a defensive shell.

They haven't responded in any detail to an article in The Bee this week in which local public relations consultant Doug Elmets echoed many by saying that the fair needs a major overhaul. "Everything is so predictable," he told The Bee's Anita Creamer. "If you've been there once, you've pretty much done it."

Rather, the fair's leaders on Friday submitted a letter from Sacramento Metro Chamber CEO Roger Niello and City Councilman Rob Fong that repeats a familiar refrain: The 159th State Fair fulfilled its mission, gave fairgoers the "kooky but always inventive foods" and the traditional exhibits they want and also featured new attractions.

There's not enough money for major upgrades to the aging buildings at Cal Expo, the letter says. "While the fair agrees that changes should occur for the future, these can only happen as a function of the available budget," Niello and Fong write.

But the problem is as much a lack of imagination as funding.

Officials ought to be happy that there are people who care enough to offer constructive criticism. For starters, why not hold a public forum where fair administrators and the Cal Expo board can listen to them?

The board, itself, could use an infusion of people who know about fairs and who are open to new ideas.

Gov. Jerry Brown has that opportunity with four appointments to the 11-member board. He needs to take full advantage in plenty of time for Senate confirmation before the board's retreat this fall. It's there that any new approaches or attractions, as well as the process for considering them, will be discussed, Cal Expo general manager Norb Bartosik told The Bee's editorial board Friday.

A spokesman for the governor says that Brown will move expeditiously to fill the vacancies, but wants to find the right people who are committed to the fair's success.

While fair officials insist they are continually looking for ways to improve the fair, it doesn't seem to translate to much action. That has to change if the fair is going to not only survive, but thrive, in the years ahead. If they're counting on the economic recovery to rescue the fair, they have to know that isn't going to be enough.

The fair should honor tradition, but to properly showcase California, it has to stay relevant. It's time to take some risks.

Even with relatively mild weather and lots of discounts, paid attendance barely budged from last year.

The numbers have improved somewhat since 2010, when the fair started a month earlier to attract more families and children during summer vacation. While nearly 524,000 fairgoers paid to get in this year, that's still well below the nearly 800,000 in 2002.

It should be obvious by now that the same old, same old isn't going to cut it.


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