Under Rick Pickering's direction, the Alameda County Fair's attendance rose 44 percent. As new State Fair chief, can he find such success here?

Q&A: Rick Pickering, State Fair's new boss, solicits creative ideas

Published: Monday, Dec. 24, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Dec. 24, 2012 - 7:01 am

Through the years, the California State Fair has been described as Big Fun.

The annual gathering at Cal Expo provides plenty of smiles for 4-H kids winning ribbons, toddlers on the carnival kiddie rides and patrons of deep-fried whatever.

But the State Fair is also a big challenge: How to honor the traditional crowd pleasers and still move it forward with attractions that appeal to a new generation.

The man who must solve that fairly difficult question is Rick Pickering, the new general manager of Cal Expo. He replaces Norb Bartosik, who is retiring.

Pickering, 54, has worked in fair industry jobs and also spent 12 years in city management.

He has been the boss at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton since 1999.

In the past four years, the Alameda County Fair has experienced a 44 percent rise in attendance. Can Pickering repeat that effort at the state level?

Why did you take the job?

I've traveled to other states and countries as an expert lecturer and motivator on what fairs are all about. I believe in fairs.

I believe they build stronger communities. What better place to do great work but at the California State Fair, the largest state in the nation.

What makes you the right person for the job?

There are lots of good people out there. My philosophy is one of relationships. Nobody achieves much of anything by way of success without the people who surround them. I have a background in community service and business leadership. It's all about building relationships.

Is the State Fair relevant today?

The State Fair is extremely relevant. People think about the fair as agriculture and animals, but they miss the part that agriculture and animals are all science, technology, engineering and math. It's not just brushing the hair of an animal. The future is as wild and creative as the public wants it to be. We are looking for partners to come to the table with creative ideas.

While attendance has increased in recent years, overall it has declined over the last decade. Critics say the fair is ho-hum, but supporters want to see their favorite events continue. Must the fair dramatically change to thrive?

Challenges and opportunity go hand-in-hand. Both government and business are looking down the road and asking: Where are people going and how do we get there with them?

As the economy picks up, the trade shows will grow again.

There was a period of time when promoters cut back on the number or size of shows.

Corn dogs or cotton candy? What's your preference?

If we can come up with a way to wrap cotton candy around a corn dog, we could do that.

Our fair has healthy food choices, right along with things you might only want to do once or twice a year. Those things are fun. Fun is what the fair is all about.

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Read more articles by Bill Lindelof

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