After two decades on the job, Norb Bartosik, California's No. 1 "fair junkie," is retiring as general manager of Cal Expo. But before he goes, he has a last message, a plea really, to the governor:
Save the fair! It needs your help now.
After all, Bartosik argues, Cal Expo is nothing less than a Brown family legacy.
Jerry Brown's father, former Gov. Pat Brown, reinvented the State Fair in the 1960s when he moved it from the cramped Stockton Boulevard site to what some old-timers still call the fancy modern fairground at Cal Expo.
Today those new grounds are middle-aged and outdated, crumbling under a $50 million deferred maintenance backlog, and can no longer handle modern event needs. Fair attendance has dropped in the past decade, and the budget is shrinking with it.
Bartosik and his Cal Expo board managed to achieve an uptick in attendance in each of the last three years by moving the fair up earlier in the summer to avoid conflict with school schedules, and offering more discount tickets. But that's not the long-term answer.
The site needs a major overhaul yesterday, Bartosik said. It needs a champion.
"I think it is a legacy issue now," the outgoing manager said. "This administration is at a pivotal point to decide what the future of the fair is going to be. This governor has a perfect chance to say 'this legacy continues and here is the direction we should go in,' based on what his dad created."
Bartosik, 63, has never worked anywhere other than a fairground, and he says he never wanted to. He doesn't accept the criticisms that corn dogs, cattle ribbons and carnival rides have become irrelevant.
The State Fair remains a unique and inexpensive family entertainment value, he argued this week, sitting in his cluttered Cal Expo office, watched over by his 19-year collection of State Fair stuffed bears.
The fair has held true to its mission to showcase California agriculture and livestock, he said. And despite its shrinking budget, it manages to showcase new technology and trends as well.
It does DNA testing of cattle. It displays aquaponic agriculture, where kids can reach into tanks and touch swimming sturgeon. It celebrates the best wines in the state with a major California-only wine competition. It runs an organic farm that teaches families what they can grow in their own yards. The farm's corn grew 12 feet high this year, Bartosik boasted.
"It is a modern fair," he insisted. "People take it for granted."
But some critics and Cal Expo advocates say the fair should change more dramatically. Suggestions over the years have included adding major exhibits that highlight California's central role in high tech, and building a light-rail line to the site.
One city councilman suggested extending the Cal Expo monorail into downtown. There was talk of relocating the city zoo to share the Expo grounds. A few years ago, a Los Angeles group pitched the idea of turning the site into a privately managed, year-round Disney-flavored entertainment center.
Most notably, fair officials recently spent two years studying a headline-making proposal to build an NBA arena on the grounds and finance it by leasing some Cal Expo land for housing and stores. Bartosik said he and board members felt they needed to explore that idea when the NBA brought it to them, but in the end they decided the deal didn't make financial sense.
The arena experience, however, opened their eyes in one potentially important way, Bartosik said. Their sprawling 350-acre site, larger than Sacramento's downtown railyard, is prime real estate. As the economy recovers, developers likely will be willing to pay good money to get their hands on a piece of it, especially the parking lot portion at the west end with freeway frontage.
Allowing development on some of the land could give Cal Expo officials the cash to modernize the rest of the fairground. Cal Expo has a master renovation plan in hand, drawn up eight years ago, to build new facilities, including heated and air-conditioned buildings for a variety of meetings, events, performances, competitions and exhibits.
To pull that off, Expo officials say they need the governor and state Legislature to allow Cal Expo to act more like a private enterprise.
"We need to be very nimble," said Deputy General Manager Brian May.
Cal Expo is a state government entity, but it gets no state funding. It must balance its books while competing against a host of other options for the public's entertainment dollars: the Sacramento River Cats, the Sacramento Kings, Indian casinos, and the growing market of high-tech entertainment gadgets.
The problem, Cal Expo officials say, is that it appears any proceeds from a land sale would go to the state general fund where, fair officials say, the money might simply disappear.
Aided by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, they pushed a bill this year to allow Cal Expo to act more like a nonprofit than a state agency, and allow it to keep land-sale proceeds. The bill stalled in committee.
Bartosik and others at Cal Expo say they'd like to rewrite and resubmit the bill next year with a stronger push and, hopefully, backing from the governor.
The governor, who appoints six of the 11 Cal Expo board members, has two open board slots to fill. Brown also is responsible for appointing the fair's three second-tier administrators this year: the deputy general manager, marketing chief and program manager.
Stephen Chambers, head of the Western Fairs Association, said those gubernatorial appointments are important: They should be done with the new fair manager's input, and should be professionals with fair experience, not political appointees.
The Governor's Office declined any detailed comment on Cal Expo, issuing an email to The Bee this week saying the governor's most recent board appointments "are committed to the fair's long-term success and vitality" and the governor will "certainly consider any bill that reaches (his) desk."
Bartosik plans to stick around to help with that effort and to ease the transition to new management in January. May, his deputy, who is retiring as well after 24 years at the fair, said he also would be willing to assist if the board wants.
The Cal Expo board is conducting a national search for Bartosik's replacement.
Bartosik says he's also around if the governor wants to talk. "I truly believe there is a way to make this work. You just have to work hard to be creative."