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Corporate Backgrounder

The Big Fresno Fair: More than just the Central Valley’s largest event!


The Big Fresno Fair (District), founded in 1884, is the fifth largest fair in the State of California. The District represents the 21st District Agricultural Association, an entity of the California Department of Food & Agriculture Division of Fairs & Expositions.  

The District is self-funded through business operations and generous community contributions. The District does not receive any funding from the State for operations. The District’s $11 million budget is managed by CEO John Alkire, administrative management and staff, and it is overseen by nine Board members appointed by the Governor’s office. According to an independent report from 2002, The Big Fresno Fair contributes more than $68.6 million in economic impact to Fresno County annually.

The District derives its annual income from three main sources: the annual Big Fresno Fair event, weekly Satellite Wagering and interim events. The largest interim events include the weekly Swap Meet, the annual Hmong International New Year Celebration and March Home & Garden Show.

The Big Fresno Fair is far more than just the Central Valley’s largest annual event, attracting more than 600,000 patrons each year. It is a year-round rental facility spanning 165 acres held under a 50-year lease with the County of Fresno, and it is host to over 250 annual events. Unique to all California fairs, the District operates two year-round satellite wagering facilities – The Starting Gate at the Fairgrounds and The Polo Lounge at Club One Casino in Downtown Fresno. From the annual Fair event, satellite wagering and the 250-plus interim events, more than 1.7 million people visit the Fairgrounds annually – a number that increases each year as the Fairgrounds’ popularity continues to grow, in part due to the many capital improvements completed over the past decade.

In the past decade, the District has invested in excess of $17 million on capital improvements to provide Central Valley residents a facility they can enjoy and be proud of. Improvements include:

  • Louie Kee Market, Eddie’s Speed Shop and Fresno Motel Signs- The Big Fresno Fair acquired and restored three new signs synonymous with rich Fresno history – the Louie Kee Market sign, Eddie’s Speed Shop sign and Fresno Motel sign. All three of these signs will debuted at the 2017 Big Fresno Fair. Founded by Kee and Effie Louie, the store was operated by the Louie family for four generations, making it one of the longest-running, family-operated grocery stores in Fresno. It closed in November of 2016 after 93 years in business in West Central Fresno. Eddie’s Speed Shop, founded by Eddie Kludjian and located on Blackstone between McKinley and Olive avenues, was a staple in the racing scene from the 1950s – 1980s. After Kludjian’s passing, the shop was operated by his wife and later sold to Mike Garrison who continued the legacy, producing some of the fastest dragsters and hydroplanes in the country. The sign also features the tailfin off of Jerry Thompson’s super-modified dragster that raced at Kearney Bowl. Plus, the famed Fresno Motel sign that was located for decades along Golden State Highway, will now have a new permanent location at The Big Fresno Fair for everyone enjoy its iconic look with the lady diving into a pool.
  • Community Cultural Center | Fresno County Historical Museum- A 1,000 sq. ft. expansion on the first floor of the Museum that features profiles on 76 iconic Valley individuals from diverse ethnic backgrounds that represent various aspects of Fresno County’s history was added in 2017. Their stories are shared via touchscreens with photos, video and an audio narrative in three different languages (English, Spanish and Southeast Asian). The Community Cultural Center also features a 27’ long and 9’ high mural by Dale Oftedal, a local and highly talented artist that depicts the rich agricultural and ethnic heritage of Fresno County. Dale has done work on exhibits throughout the U.S. and has one piece in the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. This year also marked the debut of exhibits on the African American and Hmong communities in this new area. 
  • Mexican American Exhibit - In 2017, a Mexican American exhibit honoring and highlighing the Central Valley Mexican and Mexican American community was also added - the "Mexicanos and Mexican Americans: Interwoven ino the Fabric of Fresno County." This exhibits covers six themes ranging from art and culture to the contributions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans to the economy. This work of art is presented through six flat screen monitors, parabolic speakers and two exhibit cases. The exhibit was made possible by a generous contribution from Ramona and Manuel Prieto, as well as a team of individuals who created and installed it: Lilia Gonzales Chavez; Lea Ybarra; Veronica Chavez; internationally-acclaimed Fresno architect and designer, Arthur Dyson; well-known Fresno artist, F. John Sierra; Mike Weatherson; and Irma Olguin, Jr. This incredible new exhibit is located on the first floor of the museum.  

  • Electrical Upgrade on Grounds
  • Hallowell, Hacienda & Lesterburger Signs- The Big Fresno Fair acquired and restored three signs synonymous with rich Fresno history – the Hallowell Chevrolet sign, the Hacienda Motel sign and the Lesterburger sign. All three of these signs were debuted at the 2016 Big Fresno Fair. Imagine yourself in the 1970s, Chevrolet is the biggest franchise in the area, led by James Hallowell, who was a proud community partner, active philanthropist and was named as Time Magazine’s Quality Dealer twice! The rotating H for Hallowell Chevrolet fills many memories for longtime residents of Fresno and Clovis. Another iconic neon sign is the vaquero atop a rearing horse that stood watch over the old Hacienda Motel at Clinton Avenue and Highway 99 from the 1950s until the early 1970s. The Hacienda Motel was revered and attracted celebrities and dignitaries throughout the state and nation! And finally, the Lesterburger sign that will take Fresno residents back to the taste of those iconic burgers that were loved by so many. 
  • Fresno County Historical Museum- In 2015, a new 14,000 sq. ft. $3.2 million building was debuted that is now home to the new Fresno County Historical Museum! This Fresno County Historical Museum showcases the broad history of Fresno County for all to enjoy and learn from. The Museum features everything from public safety and military to agriculture and sports history, plus so much more. In 2017, the Fair was awarded the highest honor in the fair industry, the Merrill Award for the creation of the Fresno County Historical Museum. This marks the Fair’s fourth Merrill Award, putting The Big Fresno Fair on a very small, exclusive list of fairs who have achieved this level of recognition. See the dedicated press release within this section for more information. 
  • Gem & Mineral Building Remodel- In 2016, the Fair remodeled the Gem & Mineral Building – upgrading electrical, streamlining the layout and putting a fresh coat of paint. This makes this area not only more functional for its Fair-time use, but for year round rentals. 
  • Historic Fresno Courthouse Cupola & Mars Drive-In Sign- In partnership with the Fresno Historical Society and through community support, the Fair completely restored the beloved Cupola that once rested at the top of the old Fresno Courthouse. It now is on display on the south side of the Paul Paul Theater for the community to enjoy! When it debuted in 2015, it was the first time in nearly 30 years that the Fresno Courthouse Cupola had been seen by the public. Additionally, through a generous donation by the Caglia Family, the historic 1947 Mars Drive-in sign was added to the list of famed neon signs around the Paul Paul Theater. 
  • Drought Resistant Area- The Fair is doing its part to conserve water during the California drought with a Drought Resistant Landscaping Area next to the Pavilion Stage in the Fresno County Sesquicentennial Park. This area formerly featured two grassy knolls surrounding the Pavilion Stage. However, in 2015 with California facing one of the most severe droughts on record, the Fair had two of those grassy knolls removed and replaced with drought resistant landscaping to not only help conserve water, but to create an educational area for Fairgoers. 
  • Table Mountain Rancheria Park- This capital improvement campaign began in 2005 with the addition of Fort Fresno and is home to the award-winning Pirates in the Park attraction, plus numerous other attractions for families to enjoy. These attractions include The Big Fresno Fair School House, Miners’ Town that has daily free gold panning, Fort Fresno, Dairville USA, The Big Fresno Fair’s Farmer’s Market and the Meyers Water & Wildlife Tree. New this year, is The Water Shed, located in the Meyers Water & Wildlife Tree. This new, highly technical and educational exhibit utilizes cutting edge digital projection technology to help teach scientific concepts such as the water cycle, aquifers, groundwater banking, the water table, drought and more.  Viewers will see and hear the story of the Central Valley unfold as its mountains, rivers, farmland, and aquifers experience wet and dry years.  The new exhibit will be debut at this year’s Big Fresno Fair.  Live demonstrations will take place during the Fair Education Program only, but it will be available during the entire Fair.  When not in use for Fair Education, viewers will be able to interact with the map and listen to a prerecorded audio describing what is taking place. It’s definitely a must see! Created by Monster City Studios and sponsored by Marvin Meyers.
  • Save Mart Wine Garden Entrance- As one of the most popular places on grounds, the Save Mart Wine Garden received a facelift with a new entrance featuring a 20-foot tall old mission style archway adorned with wine grapes. This improvement was made possible by Gallo. 
  • Big Fresno Fair Museum- With help from the community, Fair Management has collected an incredible variety of historical items that are now displayed in the award-winning Big Fresno Fair Museum! The Museum is open to the public daily until 9:00 p.m., and guided tours are available throughout the day. The Big Fresno Fair Museum features more than 4,600 items ranging from historical articles, photos, trophies, ribbons and even the first ever cotton candy machine, made in 1921. Additionally, the museum displays more than 42 posters of photos taken by Claude C. “Pop” Laval. To complement the variety of items on the display, there are also more than 17 murals depicting everything from the 1919 “Great Train Wreck” to the first Air Express flight in 1912 delivering the Fresno Morning Republic newspaper. Also on display, the documentary-style video, Heritage Talks, plays continuously in the Museum, providing a glimpse of the rich history the Fair has played in the lives of community members ranging from past Building Superintendents, Board of Directors and longtime staff members to longtime concessionaires and horse racing enthusiasts who have led The Big Fresno Fair track to become one of the most popular in the State. Their testimonials and stories are what brings Heritage Talks and, in turn, the Museum to life!
  • Kiddie Carnival Expansion and Improvements- In 2011, the Kiddie Carnival moved to its new location in the Infield grass area inside the Grandstand track. Since its move, the Kiddie Carnival has offered more room for parents to move around with strollers and even more space for great rides – all for the kids. In 2012, 25,000 additional square feet of new space was added, as well as 11 rides in order to make this section of the Carnival even better. Then in 2013, new lights and an ADA ramp were added for better accessibility for all our Fair patrons. New this year, concrete has been poured to create an even, clean surface for Fairgoers, their kids and strollers to walk on while visiting all of the rides! This will definitely make a much more enjoyable experience for all! 
  • New Remodeled Restrooms- In 2010, the restrooms in the Jr. Exhibits, Wells Fargo Agriculture, and Fine Arts & Photography buildings were completely remodeled to meet ADA regulations. Then in 2011, the restrooms just north of the Wells Fargo Agriculture building, in the Carnival Lot and in the Livestock Pavilion were completely remodeled to meet ADA regulations. Again in 2013, The Big Fresno Fair was able to complete newly remodeled restrooms in the Industry Commerce Building and the Save Mart Wine Garden, as well. Not a glamorous improvement but Fairgoers definitely noticed! New this year, the Fair created an All-Gender/Family Restroom for the convenience of Fairgoers. It is located on the north end of the Wells Fargo Agriculture Building. 
  • Fresno Assembly Center Memorial- A historical marker at the entrance of the Commerce Building near Chance Avenue memorializes the more than 5,400 Japanese Americans from the Valley, including Fresno and Clovis, who were temporarily housed at the Fresno Assembly Center from May through October 1942. Since 2010, the area has undergone a transformation into the Fresno Assembly Center Memorial with the marker as its centerpiece. The area features storyboards with the personal stories of individuals interned here and names of all internees are included in the Bronze Wall of Names. Again this year, docents will be available during the Fair Education Program to educate students about this time in our history. This effort is led by the Fresno Assembly Center Memorial Upgrade Committee. 
  • RV Parking- First added in 2009, The Big Fresno Fair RV parking lot gives guests who have historically stayed on-grounds during the annual Fair a new home. The RV Parking Lot, located south of Butler Avenue, includes 72 spaces and proper hook-ups. Recently, asphalt grindings were laid down to provide smoother flooring in the lot, as well as limit the dust. 
  • Reconfiguration of Chance Avenue and Butler Avenue Entrances- In an effort to get Fairgoers inside the gates more quickly, additional ticket booths were added in 2011 at the Chance Avenue Gate and the Butler Amusements Gate entrances with specific areas for line queuing. This, along with the additional wanders added, has made a significant difference for Fairgoers by reducing the amount of time they have to wait in line. 
  • Kings Canyon Gate Entrance- At the 2012 Fair, a facade stretching over 420 ft. long and 23 ft. high depicting storefronts was added along the entire stretch of the Kings Canyon Gate entrance completing this already impressive entrance to the Fairgrounds.The 2008 Fair marked the completion of the two-year Kings Canyon Avenue Gate entrance redesign and subsequent improvements have been made each year to improve the look and functionality of this entrance along the Kings Canyon corridor. The gate redesign brought Fairgoers inside the Fairgrounds and off of Kings Canyon Avenue, providing a safer and more aesthetically pleasing entrance with a shaded covering, tropical trees and water falls. The project, which won a Western Fairs Association Award, was made possible by support from the City of Fresno’s Redevelopment Agency. The completion of the Kings Canyon entrance marked the third permanent entrance to be renovated at the Fairgrounds. In 2004, the Chance Avenue Gate entrance was remodeled, followed by the Butler Avenue Gate in 2005. 
  • Race Track Improvements- In the last decade, the Fair’s horse racing facility has gone through an incredible transformation with a plethora of improvements that have made it an impressive track! Since 2004, the Fair has planted over 6,500 trees around the track and added a new grass surface, along with 2.5 miles of pop up sprinklers in the interior of the track.  The Luxury Deck was constructed which overlooks the Paddock Area, beautiful murals in the Grandstand added, recycled rubber flooring utilized and a revamped tote board are just some of the improvements made. In 2012, in honor of a longtime Fair supporter and racing enthusiast Tommy Brosi, his brother Louis Brosi and family commissioned a memorial waterfall that was built into the south side of the tote board featuring a stunning 18 ft. tall waterfall spilling over 100 tons of rock into two small pools of water. New this year, Fair patrons will notice new paint in addition to updated maintenance on fire prevention systems and new emergency lighting in place. Also, electrical and water upgrades were done to the Infield and at Turn One of the race track. 
  • Fresno State Bulldog- In 2012, The Big Fresno Fair unveiled the Fresno State ESPN Bulldog that rests on the roof of the Livestock Pavilion between Ag Ventureland and The Big Fresno Fair Farmer’s Market. Atop the 25ft. high roof, the Bulldog stands 15 ft. tall making it visible to Fairgoers throughout the grounds. Fresno State is a big part of the community and a partner to The Big Fresno Fair, so the Fair is proud to have the Bulldog as another landmark at our Fairgrounds. 

These attractions and improvements are just a small sampling of how the District has continually improved over the years. This type of dedication to the betterment of the Fairgrounds has not gone unnoticed.

The Big Fresno Fair was named the first-ever Western Fairs Association California Feature Fair in 2009 when representatives from throughout the Western United States, Canada and Mexico visited the annual event to learn about the Fair’s capital improvements, exhibits and special programs. In 2010, The Big Fresno Fair was also featured on PBS’ new series with Huell Howser called “California’s Golden Fairs.” The series highlighted the importance of Fairs to the communities they serve.

The highest honor within the Fair industry, which recognizes fair programs that demonstrate outstanding vision, leadership and excellence, has been awarded to The Big Fresno Fair four times, putting the Fair in a very exclusive group of fairs who have attained such a level of accolades. The Fair received its first Merrill Award in 2007 for the Pirates in the Park attraction within Table Mountain Rancheria Park, which was part of a multi-year capital improvement project for the Fairgrounds. In 2012, the Fair received its second Merrill Award for the “Feed the Need” Community Food Drive held in collaboration with The Salvation Army and Community Food Bank. The Big Fresno Fair was awarded its third Merrill Award in 2014 for the development of The Big Fresno Fair Museum and a new, documentary-style video, Heritage Talks. In 2017, the Fair was presented with its fourth Merrill Award for the creation of the Fresno County Historical Museum, turning the Fairgrounds into a place where the entire community can celebrate Fresno County’s history each and every day of the year. The Fair received all four Merrill Awards under the current leadership team of John C. Alkire, CEO; Stacy Rianda, Deputy Manager II; and Lauri King, Deputy Manager I.

First unveiled in 2013, The Big Fresno Fair Museum showcases over 2,600 items from varying points in the Fair’s history telling a story not only of the Fair’s past, but of life in the Central Valley over the last 134 years. Recent additions include the new area dedicated to California Chrome, the Valley’s only bred, born and fed Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner voted on by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form and the National Turf Writers & Broadcasters Association.

An expansion of the Big Fresno Fair Museum, the new Fresno County Historical Museum was unveiled during the 2015 Big Fresno Fair and showcases the broader history of Fresno County, providing a place for future generations to experience its history. The new Fresno County Historical Museum features everything from public safety and military to agriculture and sports history and so much more. The ground floor of the Museum features both permanent and temporary displays from the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame, Blackie Gejeian, Fresno Police Department, Fresno Fire Department, Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, Fresno County Farm Bureau, Fresno Historical Society, Central California SPCA and the Legion of Valor/Veterans Memorial Museum. Featured items include a 1878 hand pump and a 1913 Fire Truck from the Fresno Fire Department and a section of the 1874 Sugar Pine Flume.

The second floor of the building features both permanent and temporary displays from the Fresno Historical Society, The Fresno Bee, Caglia Family, Pop Laval Foundation, Wells Fargo and more. Featured items include a replica of an old Fresno Courthouse courtroom complete with 100-year old preserved courtroom furnishing and two of the Goddesses of Justice that were once perched on top of the old Courthouse as well as the famous 1895 “Boy with a Leaky Boot” fountain statue. The iconic 1875 Cupola is displayed on the south side of the Paul Paul Theater, viewable from the second floor of the Museum and the old 1947 Mars Drive-In sign is displayed on the eastside of the Paul Paul Theater that is also be viewable from the second floor. The second floor also includes a conference room utilized for Board and other meetings, as well as a deck overlooking the Paul Paul Theater available for use by Fair sponsors and VIPs.

The District’s dedicated and experienced team works tirelessly to launch The Big Fresno Fair event annually as a social and culturally diverse reflection of the community through exhibits, livestock, horse racing, quality entertainment and more. The Fair provides a link between urban and rural California, serving as a tool in educating Valley residents about our rich agricultural industry who might have otherwise not understood the importance or vastness of this commerce to our region. The Big Fresno Fair's overarching mission: To educate, celebrate and have fun.

With its long history of service, The Big Fresno Fair is not just the largest annual event in the Central Valley; it is an integral part of the community providing a great economic impact and a prized facility for the more than 250 interim events held each year. This year marks The Big Fresno Fair’s 135th year of operation – a proud time for all who have served, enjoyed and benefited from its well-respected operation.   

Members of the Board of Directors include: Debbie Jacobsen, President; Larry Serpa, Vice President; Jerry Pacheco, Secretary/Treasurer; Leta Ciavaglia, Linda Mae Balakian Hunsucker, Elizabeth Hudson,Ricky Vang, Dora Westurland and William White. John C. Alkire heads the daily operations in his role as CEO. 

NOTE: Current as of September 30, 2017.