Rick Pickering has a monumental task to save the California State Fair from irrelevance.
On the job as Cal Expo CEO for less than a month, he's racing the clock before the 160th State Fair starts July 12. He still promises improvements that visitors will notice and not just the massive letters spelling out CALIFORNIA donated by Disney. If all goes to plan, there will be concerts every night, and a more modern mix of acts. There will be bigger attractions on weekends.
The proof is yet to come, but Pickering seems to be on the right track, and he seems to be the right person to pull it off. He has a deep appreciation for the history of fairs in America. They were held not only to showcase "blue ribbon" crops and livestock, but also to strengthen community.
He also recognizes that the fair must adapt to the times, with many more competitors for people's time and money. His challenge is to keep traditional fairgoers he calls them "frequent fliers" while drawing new customers, including immigrants who didn't grow up with fairs in their native lands.
Since 1999, Pickering was head of the Alameda County Fair, one of America's fastest-growing. In a meeting last week with The Bee's editorial board, Pickering said he welcomes any new ideas, but will start out using many of his same strategies.
One is capitalizing on social media texting competitions, Facebook "likes" and Twitter "trends" to get young people excited enough to invite their friends to the fair.
Another is partnering with private businesses, nonprofits and public agencies to sponsor exhibits and much more. For instance, he wants to enhance ties with UC Davis to promote the farm-to-fork movement and crops in which California leads the world. Pickering also plans to put new emphasis on cross-promoting the fair at other events held at Cal Expo, including wedding, auto and garden shows.
Using such methods, the Alameda fair grew its attendance by 44 percent over the past four years. If Pickering gets anywhere near that at the State Fair, he would be a miracle worker.
While fair attendance has improved slightly since 2010, when it started a month earlier to coincide with area schools' summer break, the numbers are far below a decade ago. To many, the fair seems tired. The prior regime general manager Norb Bartosik and the Cal Expo board seemed resistant to real change.
To his credit, Gov. Jerry Brown has used his appointments to bring more varied backgrounds to the board. In August, he tapped a chef who founded an Italian cooking website and a senior manager at the world's largest music artist management company. On Friday, he filled his last vacancy with Hallie Muller, 26, director of outreach and education at Full Belly Farm, which grows organic produce in Yolo County and delivers it to members' doorsteps in the Sacramento and Bay areas.
It would also help if Brown supports legislation to allow Cal Expo to keep proceeds if it decides to sell or lease part of its 350-acre site for development. Since the state doesn't provide direct funding, that seems the most likely way to whittle down the $50 million maintenance backlog.
Pickering needs all the help he can get from public officials, from business leaders and anyone else who cares about the State Fair.