Critics of Fair Chief Say He's Out of Touch With Community : Tradition

Times Staff Writer

Maybe it's just that Jeremy Ferris doesn't look the part. With his thinning blond hair, blue-framed reading glasses and jogging shoes, he more closely resembles the Santa Monica concert promoter he was 10 years ago than head of a county fair.

Maybe it's that his dismissal three months ago of a veteran supervisor of the Home Arts department, the fair's coordinating unit, struck volunteers in that department not just as an insult to a beloved leader, but as an affront to all long-cherished homespun values.

Or maybe it's just that Ferris' vision of a revamped and prosperous fairgrounds has angered many longtime residents who view the place as a repository of community values, a sanctuary from the tides of change.

In any case, the 46-year-old Hawaii-born manager of the Ventura County Fair has become the target of increasingly bitter attacks for what critics say is disregard for the traditional country flavor of the annual event in favor of a commercialized, amusement-park atmosphere.

In an emotional meeting last month, 60 disgruntled fair volunteers launched a petition drive calling, among other things, for Ferris' ouster, the reinstatement of former Home Arts Supt. Edna Mills and a return of the fair's dates from August to October.

Those critics, who call themselves the "Give the Fair Back to the People Committee," will meet again next week before formally asking the fair's nine-member Board of Directors on Jan. 19 to fire Ferris.

"He just does not have his finger on the heartbeat of what Ventura County is all about," said Judy Eldeb, a 10-year volunteer in the Home Arts department. "This is not a megalopolis-type situation here. It is a community, agricultural, home arts, down-home-type of area. He's losing that."

But Ferris, who won a Billboard magazine award in 1976 for his management of the 3,000-seat Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, says he is misperceived.

"I think it's more of an emotional perception than a reality," he said. "I'm not a lot different than those people are. . . . I love the fair, too."

Ferris said critics are merely reacting to changes at the 79-year-old fairgrounds that are part of the inevitable growth and development already sweeping Ventura County.

"There are a lot of frustrations associated with the growth of this county and . . . they come out on something that you care about--that's the fair," he said. "It's almost a microcosm of change throughout the county. And we're a stationary target. You can come complain to us."

A favorite Ferris saying sums up his perspective: "Progress is important, but change is its motivator," he said. "And change has its enemies."

Some of the changes Ferris has made since he was appointed fair manager three years ago have not won him friends. His critics include:

Shirley Henniger, a longtime volunteer in the Home Arts department, who says Ferris acted inappropriately when he told Mills by telephone that he was not going to renew her contract after nearly 30 years of service to the fair.

James Valadez, adviser for the county 4-H program, who says he fears that renovation planned for the fairgrounds will benefit convention-type activities at the expense of agricultural and livestock exhibitions.

Jim Allen, organizer of horse and carriage shows, who says that a carnival area being proposed next to the outdoor arena will disrupt equestrian events.

In addition, dozens of fair-goers say they want the fair dates returned from August to October to allow local high school bands to again participate in the opening-day parade.

"There are a lot of people in this county who are bitter over this fair," Allen said. "They want to go back to the old traditional fair. They don't want this circus thing."

Even fair board President Al Nunes, who said Ferris generally has performed well as manager, criticized him for not curbing the controversy earlier.

"I think that some of the problems that exist could have been and should have been avoided," Nunes said. "A good manager keeps his people and the board out of these problems."

Others, however, have defended Ferris.

"I think he's doing an excellent job running the fair," fair board member Don Dufau said. "He's been a very good manager, a good businessman and a good public relations man. . . . Many times, he's been criticized very, very unfairly."

But in a business that in Ventura County depends on the yearly participation of about 3,000 volunteers and 300,000 fair-goers, the erosion of public support, whether for legitimate reasons or not, can be costly, fair officials say.

"It's a real balancing act," said Lyle Mills, acting manager of the neighboring Kern County Fair and a 20-year veteran of county fairs.

"We've basically created a society that wants to be able to turn on the TV and see something new and fresh and exciting all the time," he said. "Yet, when you make changes, it can cause people to be unsettled. It's amazing the reaction . . . There's a convenience and familiarity that makes people feel more relaxed and comfortable about their surroundings."

Ferris said he was prepared to face criticism when he accepted the $59,000-a-year job.

"It doesn't upset me," he said. "I can be terminated on a 24-hour notice at any time. That's a fact of my life. There's a lot of people that probably wouldn't take a job like that. . . . But that's just one of the risks you sign on for."

Born in Hilo, Hawaii, and raised in 22 states by his mother and Army general stepfather, Ferris is a distant relative of George Washington Gale Ferris, the engineer who unveiled the world's first Ferris wheel at the Chicago Exposition in 1893.

After earning a master's degree in public administration from the University of Southern California, Ferris was hired in 1966 by the City of Santa Monica, where he worked in jobs ranging from assistant to the city manager to director of the Santa Monica pier.

As manager of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, where he worked until 1979, Ferris booked and promoted acts ranging from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the first U. S. tours of rock stars David Bowie and Elton John.

In 1982, he went to Atlanta as assistant director of the 2 million-square-foot Georgia World Congress Center. Two years later, he went to Ventura County, eventually settling in Ojai, where he lives with one of his two teen-age sons.

"For most of the people working here, it's like running away and joining the circus," he said in an interview in his cluttered fairgrounds office. "It's a very interesting, human-based business. That's why I'm here."

Although discontent had been vented in past years, the tide of criticism against Ferris did not come pouring forth until he telephoned Mills in October and dismissed her for "not being a team player."

Home Arts volunteers under Mills were dismayed, but Mills would not comment on the incident.

"There could be absolutely no fault to be found in the job she has done," Henniger said. "She just does her job, and she does it excellently. We were a real team, all of us."

The following month, when the Home Arts building was converted into an off-track betting operation, another wave of opposition erupted. In the same 14,000-square-foot structure that during the 12-day fair is home to canned goods, quilts and pies, gamblers were suddenly paying $3 admission to bet via satellite on thoroughbred horses racing in Southern California.

"I think he just wanted Edna Mills to be gone," Henniger said. "He took over her building. It's much easier to do that when you get rid of the people who have been there."

Ferris, however, defended the dismissal as a "management prerogative" and said that, when he told the fair board of his plans not to rehire Mills, no opposition was registered.

Moreover, the satellite wagering, expected to bring the fair $1 million a year, will be moved to a tent during fair time so that the building will be available for Home Arts displays, he said.

"It's perfectly understandable that Edna's friends and those who have worked with her would be loyal to her," Ferris said. "She was a competent, organized and thorough person, but, after three years of working with her, I didn't feel she was a team player."

Before Mills' dismissal, ill feelings had been simmering over the change in fair dates that last year moved the event from October to August.

Some fair-goers complained about tampering with tradition, whereas others lamented that the opening-day parade suffered for lack of the city's high school marching bands, which were all on summer vacation.

"I'm sure there would be a lot of people unhappy about the bands not being there," said Bob Cousar, principal of Ventura High School. "They really add a sparkle. Without them, the parades are rather dreary."

But Ferris, who said the decision to change dates was made by the fair board, not himself, contends that an August fair makes better financial sense.

A day of rain at the outdoor event--more likely in October--can cost the fair $200,000 to $300,000 in refunded tickets and lost attendance, Ferris said. And the earlier date makes it easier to book big-name entertainers, who are often already in Los Angeles on summer tours, he said.

"We all remember the good old days from somewhere," Ferris said. "But things have changed, and everyone has to adapt. . . . We do need to be able to pay the bills."

Indeed, most of the changes that have generated opposition were made with financial benefits in mind. With a year-round operating budget of $2.5 million, of which only $85,000 comes from state financing, the fairgrounds needs to be run more like any other large business, Ferris said.

Although the fair has averaged about 300,000 visitors annually in recent years, the entire operation has still lost money six of the last 10 years, he said.

In fiscal 1983, the fair lost $85,000. In 1984, a $19,000 profit was made. The following year, $44,000 was lost. Last year, the fair made $28,000.

"It's a real juggle," he said. "We try to keep all the traditional elements that we can while still having it be a commercially viable entity."

The main scheme for achieving that commercial viability is a $30-million renovation proposal for the 62-acre fairgrounds known as the master development plan.

Along with new equestrian and livestock facilities, the plan calls for construction of a 100,000-square-foot exhibition hall that would draw conventions and trade shows to the fairgrounds when the fair isn't there.

Some fair volunteers, however, have objected to the size of the structure, five times as large as any other building on the grounds.

"We want a county fairgrounds, not a giant white elephant trade center," said Henniger's husband, Richard. "It would take up so much room. There would be so many awesome and awful results."

Others fear the changes will amount to a net loss of space for livestock and agricultural purposes to the benefit of commercial and tourism interests.

"They told us we would have approximately the same amount of space," said Valadez, whose 4-H program involves about 1,000 youngsters. "But we're skeptical. . . . It's just an uneasy feeling I guess I have."

But Ferris said the new convention hall and accompanying renovations would eventually benefit all fair participants by sprucing up the grounds, creating additional exhibition space and making the entire operation more financially stable. "I think we're all going to do better," he said. "As far as exhibiting the culture of the county, we'll have more space to do it in . . . And it will help defray the year-round expenses."

In the meantime, however, Ferris must fend off mounting attacks from his rebellious volunteers.

"This is breaking new ground here," he said. "Once we get through the throes of the change and can look at it in a non-threat=ened way, I think it's going to be positive for everybody."

His critics may not be so easily swayed.

"The fair's slipping away little by little," Shirley Henniger said. "As it deteriorates, we'll be left with a convention center and a big carnival area.

"But that's not the fair," she said. "The fair is the animals, the pies, the needle crafts, the floriculture and all these lovely things that people do at home."

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