by Stacie N. Galang
photography by Erica Paal
A county fair conjures strong mental images of food – the cholesterol-ridden, Cajun-spiced kind that the doctor advises against – or fluffy sheep and larger-than-life pigs a lá Charlotte’s Web, complete with the rustic smell.
Today’s fair is a pastoral scene, juxtaposed with modern-day retail, true infomercial fan fodder. And for 77 years, the business venture known as the Los Angeles County Fair has provided, as the adage goes, “Something for everyone.”
Now, as a grandfather of sorts, the fair is on the verge of taking a modern-day leap into the 21st century with an offspring known as Fairplex Village. Numerous factions that have a vested interest in the venture have come together, some willingly, others reluctantly, to bring about the complex. Fairplex Village is a proposed megaplex entertainment center that will take the 18-day event to a true year-round business.
“It would be in a village-type of design where people would come throughout the year to shop, dine, meet their friends, enjoy the variety of different activities,” says Sid Robinson, Fairplex media director.
“You look at Ontario Mills, and that’s a retail center with some entertainment. This is going to be an entertainment center with retail,” he says.
The facility is slated to have an ice-skating rink, movie theater complex, health spa and convention center, among other offerings, with retail shopping and restaurants interspersed throughout the rest of the layout. Some of the staple attractions will be transplanted to other areas of the 487-acre lot.
The NHRA Museum, for example, will move to a newly constructed location on the fair’s north side, and the garden railroad will likely be moved closer to the train exhibit, allowing year-round access. Other structures will go the way of the dodo bird. Fiesta Village, erected in 1957, will be demolished as will Fairplex 22, the current home of America’s Kids.
Robinson likens the transformation to that of the Volkswagen Beetle revival. “You take something that was truly loved and enjoyed by many people,” he says. “It’s got the conveniences and amenities of today that fit contemporary needs. It fits the new millennium.”
For several years now, Fairplex has shifted to more of a year-round facility, hosting a plethora of events. From craft shows to gun shows, the management has added to the fair plate in an attempt to subsidize the cost of running such a large facility. Even after the facility decided to push for Fairplex Village, the banning of gun shows on L.A. County property — a loss of $600,000 — has offered a telling sign that times continue to change. The move has been incremental. And while some find the prospect of an entertainment center a goldmine for the Pomona Valley, others are hesitant. Some are upset, angry even that their backyards will be more busy and traffic-laden.
Stanley Fikel, a life-long resident of Pomona and 14-year resident of Mountain Meadows, a community bordering Fairplex, laments the changes that have progressively worsened during his family’s residence in the area. Fikel lives with his wife, son and daughter. “We expected it to be busy,” he says. “What’s happened is that Fairplex has continually added activities. That’s been done without an environmental study.” Fikel refers to the increase in activities for the new venue beyond the Los Angeles County Fair. Fairplex and the city of Pomona are currently awaiting the results of an environmental impact report done within the last year to address the impact of Fairplex Village on the community.
“We hear noise from cars. My daughter hears noise from the west side, facing Fairplex, from 6 a.m. on Saturdays. Ten years ago, this didn’t exist. They’ve been able to sneak by,” Fikel says. “Now they want to stick street traffic in there. That will create a heck of a lot of traffic. There’s been no mitigation. We’ve only been made aware of one meeting, and that meeting was not a give and take. That was a meeting where they were talking to us,” he says. “We’re concerned with our day-to-day living. I bet there are a lot of people not living in the area who think [Fairplex Village] is the greatest thing since chewing gum.”
Fairplex, through an outside agency, has conducted four scoping meetings that were advertised in local newspapers. Fikel says that he only subscribes to the Los Angeles Times because local publications do not meet his expectations — a story for another day.
He relates the time his family used to be able to sit in the backyard for barbecues. “We absolutely cannot do it,” he says. “We were concerned; now we’re mad.”
Change is imminent. “What Fairplex Village will do is just make our facility more attractive,” Robinson says. “It will help us to help current events and help our other businesses here. It will also help us from the standpoint of just physically improving the plant. This place has been here since 1922, and a lot of the buildings were built in the 1930s. Most of the exhibit buildings have been renovated and modernized.
“I think when people have looked at what has happened in the exhibition complex, really most of that happened 10 years ago. They love it. There’s not a whole lot of people who want to see us go back to the way we were.”
Fairplex, and the Los Angeles County Fair, have much to contend with in the local market. Venues throughout the Southland vie for the dollars of entertainment seekers. In the battle for their notice, Fairplex Village hopes to rival those megaplex, celebrity-endorsed, neon-lit destinations.
“The fair has a large physical plant,” says Dr. Stephen Morgan, president of the University of La Verne and member of the board of directors of the Los Angeles County Fair Association. “As our bills add up, we need to invest money to improve our physical facilities. Fairplex Village will bring new sources of revenue.”
“Right now we don’t have the type of revenue stream that we can go in there every year and fix those kind of things. We can put band aids on some types of things, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” Robinson says.
Local residents, knowing it is they who will deal with the increased traffic and problems that occur with a place like the village, are upset.
Dr. Morgan addresses their concern. “It’s important to speak out. It’s important for us to hear you. It’s important to compromise,” he says. “We think that if Fairplex Village can develop as I see in the plans, with retail shopping and entertainment and food opportunities very close to us, it could be particularly beneficial to our campus,” Morgan says about its proximity to the University of La Verne. “I believe our current plan addresses those issues very effectively,” Dr. Morgan says. “We’re finding we need additional resources to provide our primary event, the Los Angeles County Fair,” he says. “I think we try to bring about the change in as positive a way as possible,” he says.
“The layout of the fair will be different. People probably don’t realize we change in one way or another the layout of where things are almost every year,” says Robinson. “The concept of doing an entertainment center at Fairplex is not a new one at all; in fact it’s been talked about for years. It really didn’t come out from a public standpoint until about the end of 1997, and it was introduced as Paradise Park, which was the initial concept,” Robinson says.
“You know the problem with this facility is that there was not a master plan in place. It started off as the 43 acres. The fair was first held in tents, and then there were some buildings, and so on and so forth. And it was built as the fairgrounds. But right now, there are not ideal flows for getting around the fair,” Robinson says. “There’s still a long way to go; we talk about tradition and seeing things go away, and I say, they won’t. We look at it as an opportunity to bring these things back in such a form that it can be better showcased. [For example], we can really do more to make it a train museum there. And you combine the historical trains with the garden railroad, and all of a sudden there’s something much more meaningful to the public. There’s just more to it,” Robinson says.
“Most projects will have one scoping meeting. We had four. And there’s a reason — to try to be in tune with as many parts of the community as we possibly could for this project and to try to develop it with a sensibility and a responsibility to what’s going to happen,” Robinson says.
“You don’t see the community as a whole objecting to this project. You see certain people in certain parts of the neighborhood, but you can’t even make the statement that the local neighbors are opposed to it because a good deal of the local neighbors on the same streets are very much for it, Robinson says. “They’re being informed and kept up-to-date of what is going on with the project.”
Robinson says that lifestyles have changed. Busy lifestyles compete with events like the fair. The family make-up has changed. More two-parent income families or single parent families have become a part of society. “With our fair, we have to do something that is a priority or makes this place so special that people are always going to want to come. I think the people who are associated with the city of Pomona realize that this is something that the city needs. I think those people who are supportive, who are the neighbors, the support group; they know that this is something the city needs.”
City Councilman Willie White says he believes the project will benefit the city by providing jobs and attracting other business. “I think Fairplex Village will be in many cases the anchor for the city.” White agrees with Robinson that the majority of the citizens believe the village will help the city to prosper. “I have to look at all the aspects of what’s going to be in the best interests of all the folks in the city of Pomona, not just one special interest group. I only really see one maybe bad thing, and that’s traffic, but you can’t have one without the other one,” he says. “It’s in the Fairplex’s best interests to mitigate this. One of the worst things that we can have is frustrated tenants who are trying to make it to the fair and can’t because of traffic.”
The plus side of traffic, he says, is that it means revenue.
The city of Pomona, which will likely have to kick in money to help fund the project, is seeking grants from D.C. and the state.
So fear not fair fans. The fair, in all its rustic glory, will remain, but it may not look quite the same.