Sacramento designers prepare displays to showcase counties at state fair

Inside a warehouse just off Sutterville Road, a team of 25 puppeteers, construction workers, painters and designers worked feverishly for a month to bring to life the best that seven Central Valley counties have to offer.

Last week, the enormous plywood displays for Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Placer, Sacramento, San Joaquin and Tuolumne counties were transported to Cal Expo, placed among other county exhibits and readied for the California State Fair’s 700,000 visitors. In the warehouse, three bears from Tuolumne lolled beside the moaning caverns of Calaveras. A Sacramento food truck was parked next to massive wine barrels representing Amador. Sawdust, paint particles and the cheerful buzz of activity floated among the structures.

The exhibits are designed by Richard Bay, a puppet master and former California State University, Sacramento, theater professor. Mark Baker, owner of the Curtis Park contracting company Fantasy Builders, oversees construction, which began May 15 and will run until the opening day of the fair. The pair have collaborated for more than 20 years, and Bay has designed county displays for more than 30 years. They don’t cut corners.

“We’re growing basil and corn in pots for the Placer County display,” Bay said, standing near several buckets of genuine Amador County soil awaiting incorporation into the wine-themed exhibit. “We make everything new every year.”

For Bay, designing the models is nearly a year-round job. He continuously researches each county’s history, geography and culture to generate fresh ideas. In the winter, the state releases the display theme and Bay begins designing in earnest, bouncing ideas off local partners in each county. He presents regional officials with a cardboard model. Once they sign off, Baker and his team get building.

Maureen Funk, executive director of the Amador Council of Tourism, has worked with Bay and Baker on Amador’s display for five years. She said their work is distinguished by careful attention to what makes each county special.

“When you look at a booth that’s been done by them, there’s a powerful sense of place, even though they build as many as seven booths,” Funk said.

This year’s theme is “From Our County to Your Table.” Bay and Baker plan to capture the essence of place by including fresh local produce in some displays. Placer County’s exhibit features a TV screen playing a cooking demonstration by chef and longtime local food advocate Joanne Neft.

Mora Rowe, executive director and CEO of the Placer County Visitors Bureau, stopped by the workshop to check on the display’s progress early last week. She said the exhibit builds community pride and draws visitors.

“It gets someone from Sacramento County to realize Placer County isn’t just a drive-through county,” Rowe said.

Despite the potential benefits, not every county decides a State Fair exhibit is worth the cost. Since the recession, many counties have cut back. Greg Kinder, deputy manager of programs for the fair, said 27 of 58 counties will have displays this year. That number is up from 24 in 2013, but significantly down from 55 in 1999. Now, participating counties tend to be within easy driving distance of Sacramento and so able to lure Northern California day-trippers with their displays.

Mike Jimena, owner and director of visual and performing arts production company Mikon Productions in Folsom, is also working on seven county displays this year. Like Baker and Bay, he has been in the county exhibit business for years. He thinks that as the economy improves, more counties will be willing to pay for displays. Jimena said he views the exhibits as a crucial part of the California State Fair experience.

“Without county exhibits, there is no State Fair,” Jimena said. “It’s just a fair.”

At Cal Expo, Bay and Baker’s team will keep working until July 11, the first day of the fair. When the fair ends July 27, the construction crew will take everything apart and throw away most of the components, though Baker will keep many of the puppets and figures. Almost immediately, Bay will begin thinking about next year’s exhibits.