New Santa Cruz County Fair CEO Zeke Fraser
New Santa Cruz County Fair CEO Zeke Fraser.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Coast Life

After a stormy offseason, Zeke Fraser is hustling to get the Santa Cruz County Fair up and running

Less than three months into his tenure as Santa Cruz County Fair CEO, the pressure is on for Zeke Fraser to pull off this year’s version, which runs Sept. 13-17. The longtime local talks about getting up to speed, what’s on tap for this year’s fair and bridging the North County-South County divide.

What you want out of a county fair above all else is continuity, not only year after year, but generation after generation. Let other community institutions adapt to huge shifts in technology or culture. The Platonic ideal of a county fair is pretty much what it was like when any given fairgoer was a kid.

But what the community has gotten from the Santa Cruz County Fair over the past year has been closer to chaos than continuity. And fast approaching is the moment when we’ll all find out whether the chaos of the fair’s offseason actually means anything, at least for rank-and-file fair lovers. That’s right, the Santa Cruz County Fair is upon us.

The five-day fair opens Sept. 13 at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds outside Watsonville.

Since last fall’s fair, the organization has experienced a stormy year (figuratively and literally), the aftereffects of which have reached to Sacramento and back.

Just a couple of weeks after the fair’s closing day, the fair’s board — at the behest of the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture, which runs and manages all county fairs in California — fired longtime fair director Dave Kegebein in a dramatic board-meeting showdown featuring uniformed law enforcement officers. What followed was several resignations (voluntary and otherwise) from the board, community meetings that featured finger-pointing and vitriol, and many conspiracy theories about the state’s ultimate designs for the fair and its grounds.

In the meantime, the fair has had four (count ’em, four!) directors. The first was Kegebein, who had run the fair for 11 years before his dismissal. That was followed by two interim directors. And into that drama stepped the fourth, the fair’s new (permanent) manager, Zeke Fraser.

Whether or not — or to what degree — the fair’s offseason madness is reflected in the fair itself is now Fraser’s job to manage. Fraser, a longtime Santa Cruzan, comes to the job not as an experienced fairhand, but instead as a 25-year professional in property management, finance and software, with a skill set in management, planning and logistics. We had a chance to chat with the fair’s new man in charge about what he envisions for the 2023 fair.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

New Santa Cruz County Fair CEO Zeke Fraser
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: I think what most people would like to know after the fair’s tumultuous offseason, is simple. Will the experience of the fair this year be any different than it was last year, or in past years?

Zeke Fraser: Well, there’s been a grand effort to really try and keep this fair as close to the previous year’s fair as we could. We really want to show everybody that we’re putting on the fair and it’s everything they expect. There have been a few small changes here and there that are unavoidable. We’ve had to swap out a few acts in favor of other things. But I think a lot of it is the same. People are going to see pretty much what they’re used to seeing. There were a couple of acts, basically, that we couldn’t book. I think there was a pirate show for the kids that was very popular and that gentleman, he got contracted somewhere else. So we weren’t able to secure him.

Lookout: Of course, those kinds of changes might have happened even if you didn’t have all the drama in the offseason, right?

Fraser: Yeah, I think in most cases, the situation was simply that these changes probably would have occurred anyway. At least that’s been my read on it. It’s hard to tell for sure. But we’ve gotten almost everyone back that we had last year, people like Cisco Jim the singing cowboy, Jeremy the juggler, we’ve got the Michael Mezmer Show, the magic show, the circus, the midway — these are all the things that that make up kind of [the] core elements of the fair. So we’ve got that all nailed down.

And yeah, the livestock, the horse arena, all of these are going to be what people remember. And there’s been a lot of questions about food. You know, do we have all of our favorite stuff coming back? For the most part, the answer is yes. I think we had the company that was doing the pies [they] decided not to do the pies this year. They’re still here, but they’re doing a different food thing this time around. But we’ve got a couple of new food venues. The fried artichoke vendors are coming back and we are very excited about that. The cinnamon rolls everybody raves about, they’re here. So I think we’re going to see mostly what everyone’s familiar with.

Lookout: You were hired on in June. That doesn’t seem like a whole lot of time to get things ready.

Fraser: Yeah, it’s an incredibly small amount of time to get things going. From what everyone has told me, the fair [planning] process starts about a month or so after you’ve finished. So you’re looking at November, December, as your time to get some of your early stuff done. There were a few things already completed, but not much. So they hired me for the purpose of putting [on] a fair ASAP. And that’s been my focus pretty much since day one.

Lookout: It’s easy to forget that you also had the aftermath of the winter storms to deal with as well. What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in getting things ready?

Fraser: It’s a little bit of everything. The grounds need to be prepped. That’s the one piece that was in constant activity throughout the tumultuous time. The maintenance staff, they’re top-notch, and they’ve been working tirelessly to get the weeds cut back from all that rain — that was an amazingly onerous task. And they’re still working on it even right now. Also, you have to plant flowers, water the greens, mend fences, paint buildings, it’s all that kind of stuff. And they’ve been on it and I think the fairgrounds are looking fantastic.

New Santa Cruz County Fair CEO Zeke Fraser
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: You’ve lived in Santa Cruz for more than 25 years now. How do you think people from the north part of the county view the fair?

Fraser: When I first moved to Santa Cruz, there was this real sense of an invisible line between North County and South County, and this idea of them being kind of separate entities. But I feel like over the years, some of that has eroded away and there’s been more of a joining of the county. I think there’s been sort of a growing together over the years. At least in the time I’ve been here. It’s subtle, but it feels less like a division and more like just a hill between the two areas.

Lookout: What kind of feedback have you gotten from people in the community about everything that has gone on behind the scenes since last year’s fair? Are people talking about the Kegebein firing and the board resignations? Is all that melodrama on people’s radar as we get closer to the fair’s opening?

Fraser: It’s hard to say. People are not talking to me about it so much. Nobody’s really brought it up to me in a major way. I’m glad because I don’t really have a dog in that fight. I think one of the reasons I was hired may have been that exact reason, that I didn’t have any deep connection to what had happened before. I’m hoping everyone wants to sort of just heal and move on. And that’ll take time and trust building, which is going to be one of my primary goals moving forward.

Tickets for this year’s Santa Cruz County Fair at the fairgrounds in Watsonville are now on sale. The fair runs Sept. 13-17.

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