Beginning Four-Day Run : Fair Officials Stay Hopeful Despite Cloudy Past

Times Staff Writer

"The San Fernando Valley Fair gets under way today at Devonshire Downs in Northridge amid uncertainty over its future."

--Aug. 6, 1981, Los Angeles Times

"Sacramento officials have taken control of the debt-ridden San Fernando Valley Fair."

--March 10, 1983, Los Angeles Times

" . . . last month's fair may have been one of the last."

--Aug. 4, 1983, Los Angeles Times

" . . . attendance did not reach the levels optimistic planners had hoped for, causing administrators to consider switching the fair to a cooler month."

--July 19, 1984, Los Angeles Times

The history of the San Fernando Valley Fair never varies much from year to year.

It is always in trouble. It never has enough money. And it still has no permanent address, although it usually can be found on the brink of extinction.

In some respects, the year leading up to the 1985 Valley Fair--which starts with a parade today--has been no different. It has produced the usual list of setbacks:

In March, a bid to purchase a permanent site in Northridge for the fair was rebuffed by the property owner, the Los Angeles Community College District.

The fair's board of directors fired its manager.

Last fall, the governor appropriated $10 million to the fair for a permanent home with the condition that the city or county chip in $20 million. Local officials have said they have higher priorities.

Yet this year, as they have every year, supporters insist that the fair will be better than past ones. The hiring of new managers would seem to at least partly support their optimism.

"I saw us go all the way to the bottom," said Dallas Boardman, a nine-year veteran of the fair's board of directors. "Now we're really going places; it looks real good."

Many attribute the fair's resilience to this kind of unflagging optimism.

Friends in High Places

The beleaguered fair also has friends in high places, such as state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys), friends in sneakers, such as 4-H club members, and tenaciously loyal friends such as Andrew Stodel, a longtime fair director who began exhibiting barnyard animals at Los Angeles fairs 65 years ago.

Stodel estimates that he has visited thousands of fairs around the world, and, if you ask him a question about the San Fernando Valley Fair, you'll inevitably learn something about a fair in southern Nevada or a livestock exhibit in India.

For these supporters, the fair, which gathers together pigs and dairy goats alongside canned preserves and home-grown rhubarb, doesn't just represent an era long departed from the Valley. When explaining why city dwellers should attend the fair, enthusiasts borrow the argument used by those who encourage their friends to watch opera on public television: It's good for you and will help make you a well-rounded person.

This year, the fair--sporting the theme "Excitement's in the Air"--runs today through Sunday on the North Campus of California State University, Northridge, 18000 Devonshire St., at the old Devonshire Downs.

Organizers are hoping 45,000 to 50,000 people will attend. But Mel Simas, the new fair manager, concedes that even those figures wouldn't scratch the surface of the numbers that the fair should be drawing from a pool of 1.5 million people.

Attendance Problems

A tarnished image, lack of money to generate publicity, its homelessness and competition from more sophisticated attractions like Six Flags Magic Mountain are some of the reasons the fair has failed over the years to attract large crowds, Simas and others said.

Luring more people to the fair and improving its credibility "will be a good two- to five-year" process, Simas predicted. He said he would be happy to increase attendence by 10% a year.

Because the fair's advertising budget is minimal, success will depend largely on word-of-mouth endorsements, Simas said. This year, Simas said, he will spend $20,000 in advertising, even though he feels $150,000 is needed for television air time and full-page newspaper ads.

Organizers of this year's fair have reaffirmed a desire to stress the basics. This year, exhibits have been designed, more so than in the past, to remind people of where they get their food. Besides the traditional livestock exhibits shown by groups such as 4-H and the Grange, there will be a few hands-on exhibits.

For instance, a cow will be at the disposal of anyone who has an urge to try to milk her. Signs displayed next to the cow will indicate how much grain and water it takes for her to produce her daily milk.

'Carnival in Shopping Center'

"We don't appreciate what we have because we can go to a supermarket and get anything we want," said Stodel, who heartily endorses the fair's direction.

It is a modest start, but a start in the right direction, said Simas, who added that, without these agricultural and arts and crafts exhibits, the fair might as well be a "carnival in a shopping center."

Fair directors and 4-H officials in the Valley said Simas and his wife, Jo Ann, who is co-manager of the fair, are two good reasons to be optimistic about the fair's future. The couple, who operate a fair-consulting firm, have 20 years of fair-management experience between them.

"I personally feel the fair people are doing a dynamite job," said Agnes McBroom, president of the Valley's 4-H Leaders Council, who noted that last year's fair was marred by snafus.

Managers Fired

The couple replaced Phil Casanta, who was fired as manager after the 1984 fair. Among the reasons for the dismissal, board members said, was his hiring of friends and his inexperience.

It was not the first time a fair manager has been fired. Casanta's predecessor, Jack R. Farley, left after the state temporarily took over the debt-ridden fair in 1983 and loaned it money to keep it alive. During Farley's term, some board members were accused of using the fair as a political pork barrel and emphasizing its commercial aspects at the expense of agriculture.

Robbins, who was instrumental in reviving the fair 15 years after it was legislated out of existence in 1960, blames the fair's homelessness for the managerial revolving door.

"It's tough to find a really first-rate manager who will stay around when you don't have permanent fairgrounds," Robbins said. When asked about the new managers, the senator replied: "I'm optimistic and enthusiastic. Ask me again after the fair is over."

Uncertainty in Future

How long the fair will remain a nomad is unclear. Since 1975, the fair has rented land from CSUN, but the university wants to develop the property. There is an outside chance that the fair will not be able to use the property in 1986 and it is almost certain that the land will be off limits in 1987, said Charles Manley, the university's director of facilities planning and management.

Fair officials say a permanent fairground would give the fair much-needed revenue by transforming it from a tenant into a landlord. Fair directors also said they believe permanence would help repair the fair's credibility problem.

A state General Service Department study, examining the feasibility of a new fairground and selecting potential sites, should be completed by the end of the year, Robbins said. Robbins anticipates that, as part of the study, public hearings will be held this fall to solicit ideas for what kind of fairground the community wants and needs.

Robbins and some of the fair directors say that, at a permanent site, the fair could branch out and highlight what the Valley produces today. High-technology and other industries could share space alongside the lambs, steers and apple pies.

More Money Needed

Of course, all of this talk will remain theoretical until a site is bought. Still to be determined is how the fair will get the money to pay for a new home. The fair has $3 million from the sale of the small amount of property it owned, but it will need a lot more money.

The $10 million the governor appropriated cannot be used until private benefactors or local governments produce another $20 million.

The fair will be open from noon to 11 p.m. today and Friday, and from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Today's parade starts at 10 a.m. at White Oak Avenue and Devonshire Street.

Admission to the fair is $4 for adults, $2 for senior citizens, $1.50 for 6- to 12-year-olds, and free for children 5 and under. Today, senior citizens will be admitted free between noon and 6 p.m.; on Friday, anyone 18 or under will be admitted free during the same hours.

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