With 160 prime acres in the heart of suburbia, the 110-year-old Orange County Fair has become a legitimate player in the Southland's ultra-competitive field of weekend attractions.
But success has brought the fairgrounds to a crossroads: How can management improve the facility and still stay true to its agricultural heritage?
Goat pens and the eclectic collection of old buildings, some dating back to the 1940s, don't have much appeal to today's high-tech generation, which is more accustomed to Game Boys and hair-raising thrill rides.
The fair is searching for a way to modernize so it won't lose its appeal yet remain loyal to its county fair roots, a balancing act that ultimately will be decided as part of the fair board's proposed 10-year development plan. The board is still accepting public comment and is expected to vote on the comprehensive master plan Nov. 15.
Some residents want the fairgrounds to shed some of its agricultural image. They favor reshaping the concourse into more of a cultural arts center, complete with Shakespeare festivals and a 700-seat indoor theater that can host the dozens of local musical and theatrical groups clamoring for performance venues.
More than 1,000 vendors who sell their wares at the fairground's popular weekend marketplace want the facility to remain unchanged, fearing a total make-over might disrupt the steady stream of 25,000 customers and the $4.7 million a year in revenue they generate for the fairgrounds.
Horse owners wanted to see improved riding facilities but instead have found themselves on the defensive. They successfully quashed plans to eliminate the equestrian center, but the fair board voted last week to downsize the number of horse stalls from 250 to 180.
Becky Bailey-Findley, who as general manager of the fair oversees 100 employees and a $14-million budget, envisions a facility that combines all of those ideas.
Still, the overall mission of the fairgrounds must not change, Bailey-Findley said. The facility is neither an amusement park nor a shopping center. It's a public exhibition place that must remain open and accessible to all, she said.
A region as large and diverse as Orange County needs a "comfortable place" for recreation, Bailey-Findley said.
Plus, making money was never the primary mission of the fairgrounds, said fair board chairman Curt Pringle, former speaker of the state Assembly.
Pringle said the board embraces a "break-even" mentality. "The swap meet and other events earn us a tremendous amount of money each year and we use that to plant those dollars back into the fairgrounds," he said.
The profits are funneled to venues such as Centennial Farms, a 4-acre working farm visited by thousands of schoolchildren that is a financial drain but is provided as a service. The challenge, Pringle said, is to "make enough revenue to build facilities and what projects you can afford and take it in steps."
The fair's management was criticized recently by the marketplace vendors and others who attended a hearing on the 10-year master plan. For weeks, rumors circulated about the fair's plans to relocate the weekend swap meet and eliminate the equestrian center.
After hearing testimony from concerned vendors, the fair's board decided to leave the marketplace alone, but voted to cut the size of the equestrian center nearly in half.
Horse rider Sharon Gerstenzang of Fountain Valley told the board she believes there's a "huge disconnect" between fair clients and management. "There's a huge demand for horse stables and horse shows, yet these plans called for a downsizing of horse facilities," she said.
For her part, Bailey-Findley said she has tried to listen to the concerns and communicate the board's intent as best she can. "There is no conspiracy," she said.
One result is the board's desire to eliminate 10,000 seats at the controversial Pacific Amphitheater, closed since summer 1995. The venue has been the subject of a long-running legal dispute with nearby residents over noise.
The amphitheater still could be used, but the board expressed a sensitivity about creating noise that could renew complaints. Bailey-Findley said the next step is to evaluate how to take advantage of the facility after determining whether it needs a sound wall, or possibly a roof, to limit noise.