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Central California Life Magazine

The Big Fresno Fair: 5th Largest Fair in the State of California

Oct 04, 2016 04:11PM ● By Melanie Heisinger

Photo courtesy of the Big Fresno Fair Facebook page.

The Big Fresno Fair: More than just the Central Valley’s largest event!

The Big Fresno Fair (District), founded in 1884, is the fifth largest fair in the State of California. The District represents the 21st District Agricultural Association, an entity of the California Department of Food & Agriculture Division of Fairs & Expositions.  

The District is self-funded through business operations and generous community contributions. The District does not receive any funding from the State for operations. The District’s $11 million budget is managed by CEO John Alkire, administrative management and staff, and is overseen by nine Board members appointed by the Governor’s office. According to an independent report from 2002, The Big Fresno Fair contributes more than $68.6 million in economic impact to Fresno County annually.

The District derives its annual income from three main sources: the annual Big Fresno Fair event, weekly Satellite Wagering and interim events. The largest interim events include the weekly Swap Meet, the annual Hmong International New Year Celebration and March Home & Garden Show.

The Big Fresno Fair is far more than just the Central Valley’s largest annual event, attracting more than 600,000 patrons each year. It is a year-round rental facility spanning 165 acres held under a 50-year lease with the County of Fresno, and is host to over 250 annual events. Unique to all California fairs, the District operates two year-round satellite wagering facilities – The Starting Gate at the Fairgrounds and The Polo Lounge at Club One Casino in Downtown Fresno. From the annual Fair event, satellite wagering and the 250-plus interim events, more than 1.5 million people visit the Fairgrounds annually – a number that increases each year as the Fairgrounds’ popularity continues to grow, in part due to the many capital improvements completed over the past decade.

In the past decade, the District has invested in excess of $16.5 million on capital improvements to provide Central Valley residents a facility they can enjoy and be proud of. Improvements include:

  • New Fresno County Historical Museum and Big Fresno Fair Museum first added in 2013.
  • Table Mountain Rancheria Park with nine whimsical attractions, including the award-winning Pirates in the Park life-size pirate ship. Construction of the Park Area spans from 2006 – present.
  • In 2011, the Cattlemen’s Mural was added to the east side of the Livestock Pavilion commemorating the rich history of ranchers in the Central Valley region.
  • In 2010, the restrooms in the Jr. Exhibits, Wells Fargo Agriculture, and Fine Arts & Photography buildings were completely remodeled to meet ADA regulations. Then in 2011, the restrooms just north of the Wells Fargo Agriculture building in the Carnival Lot and Livestock Pavilion were completely remodeled to meet ADA regulations. And lastly in 2013, the Commerce and Industry Commerce restrooms were remodeled to meet ADA regulations.
  • Three separate entrances have been reconstructed to allow a more lushly landscaped, efficient and safe entrance to the Fairgrounds – Chance Avenue Gate (2004), Butler Avenue Gate (2005) and Kings Canyon Gate (2008).
  • Major electrical, sewer and water upgrades have been made throughout the entire facility.
  • The Fresno County Sesquicentennial Park, dedicated in 2006, permanently signifies the unity and collaboration of Fresno County cities.
  • Projects including the 14,000 panel solar project, and recycled rubber flooring installed in four critical areas that saved California landfills from over 21,000 tires, have catapulted the District into the spotlight as an emerging “environmentally friendly” leader.
  • Over $4 million in horse racing track improvements in the last decade including the complete remodel of the Paddock and addition of the Luxury Deck, plus so much more.
  • The 1890 replica of The Big Fresno Fair’s grandstand entrance including a life-sized horse and jockey at the infield parking entrance at Kings Canyon Avenue adds a historic monument to this valued tradition.
  • The RV Park, added in 2009, contains 72 spaces for Fair vendors and concessionaires or year-round interim events customers.
  • Fresno Assembly Center Memorial Upgrade in collaboration with the Japanese American Citizens League. The Fair has assisted with electrical and sewer updates that were necessary for the project and The Friends of the Fair, The Big Fresno Fair’s 501 (c) 3, was a major sponsor.

These attractions and improvements are just a small sampling of how the District has continually improved over the years. This type of dedication to the betterment of the Fairgrounds has not gone unnoticed.

The Big Fresno Fair was named the first-ever Western Fairs Association California Feature Fair in 2009 when representatives from throughout the Western United States, Canada and Mexico visited the annual event to learn about the Fair’s capital improvements, exhibits and special programs. In 2010, The Big Fresno Fair was also featured on PBS’ new series with Huell Howser called “California’s Golden Fairs.” The series highlighted the importance of Fairs to the communities they serve.

The highest honor within the Fair industry, which recognizes fair programs that demonstrate outstanding vision, leadership and excellence, has been awarded to The Big Fresno Fair three times. The Fair received its first Merrill Award in 2007 for the Pirates in the Park attraction within Table Mountain Rancheria Park, which was part of a multi-year capital improvement project for the Fairgrounds. In 2012, the Fair received its second Merrill Award for the “Feed the Need” Community Food Drive held in collaboration with The Salvation Army and Community Food Bank. The Big Fresno Fair was awarded its third Merrill Award in 2014 for the development of The Big Fresno Fair Museum and a new, documentary-style video, Heritage Talks. The Fair received all three Merrill Awards under the current leadership team of John C. Alkire, CEO; Stacy Rianda, Deputy Manager II; and Lauri King, Deputy Manager I.

First unveiled in 2013, The Big Fresno Fair Museum showcases over 2,600 items from varying points in the Fair’s history telling a story not only of the Fair’s past, but of life in the Central Valley over the last 132 years. Recent additions include the new area dedicated to California Chrome, the Valley’s only bred, born and fed Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, who was recently named Horse of the Year at the Eclipse Awards, voted on by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form and the National Turf Writers & Broadcasters Association.

An expansion of the Big Fresno Fair Museum, the new Fresno County Historical Museum was unveiled during the 2015 Big Fresno Fair and showcased the broader history of Fresno County, providing a place for future generations to experience its history. The new Fresno County Historical Museum features everything from public safety and military to agriculture and sports history, plus so much more. The ground floor of the Museum, which has roll up doors to accommodate large pieces of memorabilia like tractors, cars and wagons, features both permanent and temporary displays from the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame, Blackie Gejeian, Fresno Police Department, Fresno Fire Department, Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, Fresno County Farm Bureau, Fresno Historical Society, Central California SPCA and the Legion of Valor/Veterans Memorial Museum. Featured items include a 1878 hand pump and a 1913 Fire Truck from the Fresno Fire Department and a section of the 1874 Sugar Pine Flume.

The second floor of the building features both permanent and temporary displays from the Fresno Historical Society, The Fresno Bee, Caglia Family, Pop Laval Foundation, Wells Fargo and more. Featured items include a replica of an old Fresno Courthouse courtroom complete with 100-year old preserved courtroom furnishing and two of the Goddesses of Justice that were once perched on top of the old Courthouse and the famous 1895 “Boy with a Leaky Boot” fountain statue. The iconic 1875 Cupola is displayed on the south side of the Paul Paul Theater, viewable from the second floor of the Museum and the old 1947 Mars Drive-In sign is displayed on the eastside of the Paul Paul Theater that is also be viewable from the second floor. The second floor also includes a conference room that will be utilized for Board and other meetings, as well as a deck overlooking the Paul Paul Theater that will be available for use by Fair sponsors and VIPs.

The District’s dedicated and experienced team works tirelessly to launch The Big Fresno Fair event annually as a social and culturally diverse reflection of the community through exhibits, livestock, horse racing, quality entertainment and more. The Fair provides a link between urban and rural California, serving as a tool in educating Valley residents on our rich agricultural industry who might have otherwise not understood the importance or vastness of this commerce on our region. Its mission: To educate, celebrate and have fun.

With its long history of service, The Big Fresno Fair is not just the largest annual event in the Central Valley; it is an integral part of the community providing critical economic impact and a prized facility for the more than 250 interim events held each year. This year marks The Big Fresno Fair’s 132nd year of operation – a proud time for all who have served, enjoyed and benefited from its well-respected operation.   

Members of the Board of Directors include: Leta Ciavaglia, President; Debbie Jacobsen, Vice President; Jerry Pacheco, Secretary/Treasurer; Elizabeth Hudson; Linda Mae Balakian Hunsucker; Larry Serpa; Ricky Vang; Dora Westerlund and William White. John C. Alkire heads the daily operations in his role as CEO.

All content courtesy of The Big Fresno Fair website. 

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Happy Reading,

Karen Maroot