PICTURED: The Ventura County Fair is back in swing for the first time in three years. Photo submitted
by Alex Wilson
As Barbara Quaid looks back at 50 years of service to the community through her leadership at the Ventura County Fair, it’s people that come to mind more than spectacle. When asked what her favorite thing about the fair is, Quaid does not talk about cheering concert crowds or the youth livestock auction. Instead, she answers with just two words.
“The staff,” she said, before adding, “This staff is beyond anything anyone could ask for. They make the CEO’s job simple and easy. You can rely on every person here. They care, and they’re all professionals.”
Quaid is serving as co-CEO as the fair makes its return after two years of pandemic-related cancellations, alongside the fair’s newly hired co-CEO, Stacy Rianda.
From volunteer to CEO
Quaid grew up in Pittsburgh and moved to Ventura County in 1968. She joined a club for newcomers to the area and one of the activities was volunteering at the fair. She started in the Youth Building in 1972, helping to organize and display entries.
“I brought my 3-year-old and my 9-month-old and dragged the playpen around, and I loved it so much,” she said.
After volunteering for about 10 years, Quaid took a job as the fairground’s receptionist. “When you answer phones you know everything,” she said. Quaid moved up the ranks, working on concessions, becoming the fair’s deputy manager, and finally CEO in 2005.
This will be her last year as CEO, but the fair will always be part of Quaid’s life.
“Even though I’m retiring, I know that I will still come back here and volunteer. It’s kind of like I’ve come full circle,” she said. “There are people here who I’ve known for years and years who I will always stay in contact with. They’re dear friends. The fair is always something that’s inside of you.”
COVID creates the shock of a lifetime
Overseeing the fair involves a myriad of sometimes unpredictable tasks, from glamorous ones like greeting famous performers, to more mundane jobs such as ensuring restrooms are kept clean. But there’s one thing Quaid never could have expected: Canceling the county’s biggest annual event in the face of a global pandemic.
“Never in a million years,” she said, when asked if she would have ever seen that shock coming.
As the scope of the pandemic became clearer in April 2020, Quaid retired from her full-time position as a state employee and agreed to return on a part-time basis, to help the state-owned fairgrounds weather the financial storm. Since the fair is self-supporting and not funded by taxpayer money, major cutbacks had to be made.
A full-time staff totaling about three-dozen people needed to be reduced to around a half-dozen, fair officials said. Quaid laid off about 60 people, including part-timers as well as maintenance workers who had spent decades laboring at the fairgrounds alongside her.
“It was really horrible,” she said about the grim task.
A return to tradition
Now that the fair is making its triumphant return, Quaid said she’s looking forward to making new memories with fairgoers.
“It’s so exciting,” she said. “We just know that all of these people who have been home without any entertainment for two years are going to be coming here for 12 days of fun, smiles and stuffing themselves silly with food.”
Jennifer Giordano is one of the food vendors returning this year. Her family’s business, C&C’s Frontier BBQ near the main entrance, has cooked tri tip over oak and mesquite for over 40 years. They travel to other fairs from their home in Claremont, but she said that Ventura, where they stay in an RV near the shore, is her favorite.
“It’s great. They take really good care of us here,” Giordano said. “We love this fair because it’s hometown. It feels like an old country fair.”
It was “heartbreaking” to learn that the fair was called off in 2020 and 2021, and Giordino is happy to be back.
“Fabulous. Couldn’t be better,” she said. “Concessionaires are one big family even though we’re competitors. We all work together to help each other out, so you miss that when it’s all shut down. When we’re all coming back together now, it’s like family that you haven’t been able to see in three years.”
Facing the challenges
Leslie Cornejo has served on the fair’s board of directors for over a dozen years. She was president between 2018 and 2021, facing unprecedented challenges under her leadership.
Before moving to Ventura County, Cornejo lived in Wyoming, where she enjoyed going to rodeos. Later in life, she started taking her kids to the Ventura County Fair.
“Being a band booster and mom, I was always shuttling kids to the fair for performances and parades and all that,” she recalled.
Cornejo’s mother became a fair board member in Santa Barbara County, which gave her the idea about applying to serve in Ventura County. Since Cornejo owns a retail travel agency, Santa Paula Travel Service, she knew she’d be good at helping lead the fair.
“I’m kind of an organizational-type person, so I like making order out of chaos,” she said. “It’s just an amazing thing to be involved in, and particularly because it’s all about joyful events, having fun and learning.”
Aside from businesses where crowds gather like concerts and fairs, few industries were hit as hard by COVID as travel.
When Cornejo first heard about COVID she didn’t expect it would be such a big deal. “When things started closing down for March, we’re all thinking, ‘Well OK. We might have to shelter or close down for a couple of weeks. Oh my gosh, what are we going to do?’ And then it just kept on going longer and longer.”
As other fairs scheduled before Ventura’s were called off, it became obvious the situation was dire. The fair board heard from state officials that large gatherings would be the last activities to fully resume.
“So we thought, OK. This isn’t going to go away soon,” she related, calling it “heartbreaking” to cancel the fair. “Not to mention, of course, that’s our big fundraiser for the year. And so then we were realizing all of the financial ramifications of having to close as well. So it was just very scary.”
In addition to losing the fair, they also had to cancel other year-round events like car races, weddings and flea markets. Fair officials were able to access COVID relief funding and rented out space for COVID vaccinations.
Now that the fair is back, the fairgrounds are hiring again and looking for volunteers.
“We are all smiling. It’s just joyful right now. It really is,” Cornejo said. “We want the fair to be as close to what we usually do as possible, so that people feel like they’ve come home.”
What fairgoers won’t see this year
While most things people are used to seeing such as exhibits, livestock and thrill rides are back, there are a couple of notable cutbacks made as a result of cost concerns.
Hiring famous performers is more expensive than ever, Cornejo said, so there will be three fewer concerts compared to before COVID. The senior day matinee concert was called off and there won’t be concerts on the final Thursday or Friday nights.
“The costs for the acts are through the roof and we still want people to have free concerts with their paid admission. So we did have to cut back on the number of concerts,” she said, adding that the rodeo was expanded from two days to three with the first one on Friday, Aug. 12. “We can’t just blow the money not knowing exactly what will happen at the gate coming in. So we’ve had to tighten our belt on some things, but we’re trying to give as much of a similar experience as everyone would remember.”
Another big thing missing this year might be a disappointment to some and a relief to others — fireworks.
Cornejo explained that decision had to do with several factors including permitting costs, fees charged by the fireworks companies that nearly doubled, and environmental concerns.
“We decided we just don’t have the funds or the energy to deal with that this year,” she said, calling the decision “unfortunate” and adding that it’s not necessarily a permanent decision that will be revisited for future years.
“I’m a big advocate for the fireworks. I hate to see them go, but I do understand the reason for it,” she said. “I know that some dogs will be happy that we don’t have the fireworks, and some residents, so it’s a mixed reaction to that.”
Another change in tradition involves no longer opening the fair during the morning hours. The gates open at noon on the weekends and 1 p.m. on other days, partly because of staffing issues, officials said.
A time of transition
While this year’s fair marks a triumphant return it’s also a year of transition, especially with Quaid leaving her position as CEO when the event wraps up.
“Her heart is with the fair. She almost is the fair for us. She’s so involved in everything,” Cornejo said of the outgoing CEO.
Letting go of employees was an extremely difficult job, but according to the fair board director, Quaid was the right person to do it because of her connection with the staff.
“She’s wonderful with personnel and employee relations and all of that. Very well versed in those types of issues,” confirmed Cornejo.
While she is happy Quaid will continue to volunteer at the fair, Cornejo said that it’s also bittersweet to bring the fair back and wish Quaid goodbye at the same time. “Everybody is very melancholy, as a matter of fact. But we believe she’ll still be around and she gets along with the new CEO.”
She added that it should be a seamless transition. “We believe the new CEO is going to hit the ground running with a lot of energy, so we’re anxious to see where she’ll take us.”
Rianda started July 6, and Cornejo said working alongside Quaid will help the new CEO learn the ropes. “Our institutional knowledge can be passed on to Stacy. And it’s a crazy busy time anyway, so it’s important we have a couple of people working. One learning, the other passing on the knowledge.”
New leadership and looking to the future
Much like Quaid, Rianda has also been involved with county fairs for much of her life. She grew up in King City and enjoyed the Salinas Valley Fair when she was a kid.
“I’d come with my pigtails and pearl-snap shirt, and ride the ponies, and it was my favorite thing to do,” Rianda said.
After studying agriculture business at California State University, Fresno, she took a job working with livestock at several fairs in Northern California including the Tulare County Fair, where she started in 1991. She’s been working for the Big Fresno Fair the last 21 years and served as co-CEO for the last two.
In 2020 the Fresno fair did a drive-through food booth event with 20,000 cars in 10 days, she said. Last year it was staged in a mostly normal fashion.
Rianda was “ecstatic” and “thrilled” when she got the job in Ventura County, since the fair has such a solid reputation across the state.
“If I was ever going to leave Fresno to run another fair it would be this one,” she said. “Obviously you can’t beat the weather, the location, the people. Just everything about it; It’s the whole package. It’s a jewel that I’m just so looking forward to developing,”
Rianda is also happy to have Quaid’s help as she learns the ropes at her first Ventura County Fair. “She’s worked the last several years to keep this place afloat. And I’m glad that she’s here to be a part of this fair that she and the staff have worked so hard to produce.”
The Ventura County Fair takes place Aug. 3-14 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, 10 W. Harbor Blvd., Ventura. For tickets, full schedule of events and more information, visit venturacountyfair.org.