Randy Pench / rpench@sacbee.com

California State Fair chief Rick Pickering, shown Tuesday at Cal Expo, has the challenge of reinvigorating the annual event.

Editorial: Few fresh ideas at California’s slightly stale State Fair

Published: Saturday, Jul. 12, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Friday, Jul. 18, 2014 - 7:24 pm

There are some new things to be found at the California State Fair, including the latest outrageous trends in the Things Wrapped in Bacon and/or Deep Fried category.

Exhibits have changed, of course. There’s more shade than last year. And because the Sacramento Republic FC has taken up residence at the temporary Bonney Field, there will likely be an influx of soccer fans in Hussong’s Cantina on game days.

While those amenities are certainly a net gain to the annual event, there isn’t much in the way of fresh ideas or innovative programming. Not even a fair app yet – a staple of other states that aren’t home to Silicon Valley.

It’s a bit disappointing. When Rick Pickering was hired a year and a half ago as general manager of Cal Expo, it was with the promise of a new era for the fair. He’d turned around Alameda County Fair, increasing attendance by huge leaps. Many people, including The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board, hoped it signaled new life for what had become a tired-out event.

The media got a preview of the offerings for the 161th State Fair on Thursday, the day before the gates opened for another 17-day run. The group was guided through the pounding of hammers and buzz of activity as the last of booths went up and the concessionaires readied for the onslaught. At the rides pavilion, carnies were still in the process of setting up the Zipper, the tilt-a-whirl and bumper cars.

Standard fair fare, but if there are some big new ideas taking shape to turn it into a showcase for the Golden State in the 21st century, we haven’t seen them yet. The changes made so far are nice, but they amount to little more than tinkering at the edges.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask of one person to reverse the long downward trend so quickly. The State Fair had seen years of declining attendance long before Pickering arrived, and it wasn’t hard to see why.

The fair was physically stuck in an aging complex that grew shabbier with every passing year with little money for maintenance – not unlike much of California’s infrastructure. And it was figuratively stuck in a conceptual time warp from which it is still struggling to emerge.

This is tough to do while the fair is caught in a vicious cycle of declining attendance that makes it harder to invest in Cal Expo and the fair, which makes it less attractive to visitors who are less inclined to visit.

There is evidence that cycle is, if not broken, then slowing down. Fair attendance was up last year, more than 6 percent. But there’s no way to tell if that was simply due to moving the fair earlier in the summer so it doesn’t conflict with the start of school. If so, we could see a stagnation this year. So far, the expectations are higher due to strong ticket pre-sales via Groupon and Costco deals. We hope those early expectations prove right.

There are some glimmers of success we hope Pickering and his team can build upon for the future, notably an even stronger farm-to-fork presence this year. In fact, one of the large standalone exhibits, Sweet, is an exhaustively researched farm-to-fork history of candy-making. Sweet, indeed.

California is without a doubt the most diverse, innovative, exciting state in the union. The State Fair should reflect that.

It doesn’t – not yet. This is not the fault of the current Cal Expo chief, but it is his challenge for future fairs.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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