Consultant says fairgrounds hitting smoother waters

In recent years, the Orange County Fairgrounds property was in "battleship" mode, "firing at targets and being fired upon," a management consultant told the Fair Board during its monthly meeting Thursday.

Those years were "political chaos," said Bill Kelly, when taking into account the hotly contested fairgrounds sale attempt and a series of short-lived CEOs at the helm.

Now, though, the battles are winding down and the fairgrounds is transforming into a fun "cruise ship" that can be a model operation in California, said Kelly, who was hired by the Fair Board to do a wide-ranging needs assessment of the fairgrounds organization.

"You move from the battleship back to the cruise ship, and now you want to be the best cruise ship line," the former Arcadia city manager said. "That should be your goal."

The fairgrounds is strong in several ways, he said, including a great location in Costa Mesa, good core values by its employees, family-oriented fun and the nature of its public ownership.

Weaknesses and threats, however, include operating difficulties under strict state guidelines, turnover rates of executive staff and CEOs, and another potential sale of the state property to private ownership. Kelly provided the analysis based on months of research, community meetings and interviews with employees.

When it comes to the grounds themselves, Kelly suggested a signage program, better landscaping and a review of the noise — and the effect of it on neighbors — generated at the 150-acre property.

For better community relations, Kelly said several new committees could help with the task, among them a community advisory committee of homeowner associations representatives, neighbors and interested parties, as well as a user advisory committee comprised of fairgrounds activists, equestrian center uses, nonprofit groups and vendors.

For increased transparency, the fairgrounds should improve its website,, to highlight its governance, Kelly said.

The site is excellent for letting people know about the fair and other events, he said, but it is not as helpful for easily finding Fair Board meeting dates, agendas, minutes and organizational charts, or the fairgrounds' capital budgets, audit reports, employee salaries and contracts.

Kelly added that some of his suggestions are subjective: "This report is not the plan. It is a plan."

Fair Board members said they welcomed the input.

Director Nick Berardino said he appreciated the feedback and suggested that the board reexamine the report after the summer fair, which runs from July 11 to Aug. 10.

"It wasn't all wrong and it wasn't all right, but it certainly makes you look at things," added Chairman Stan Tkaczyk.

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