By Tim Hunt
Big plans to transform the fairgroundsUploaded: Sep 30, 2021
When Jerome Hoban took over as Chief Executive Officer of the Alameda County Fair in 2013 his board prioritized the second phase of its vision plan.
The board operates the 265-acre fairgrounds and runs the county fair as well as renting facilities to other events and groups. Hoban, who came to Pleasanton from the Orange County Fair, is leading the board and his team through challenging times—and that’s before the pandemic hit and forced the cancellation of the 2020 fair and saw it morph into a Covid-19 testing site and eventually a mass vaccination site.
Speaking to the Pleasanton Men’s Club this month, Hoban emphasized his roots in the fair business and his love for it while noting that the other 49 weeks of activity are critical to maintaining a positive annual budget. Like other insiders, he explained that the economics of the fair are changing and tied directly to the shrinking California horse racing industry. It’s sick and getting sicker.
It was once an economic engine with both the three-week meet during the fair and the year-round operation of the offtrack betting facility. Now they’re reimagining different uses for both facilities—considering competitive fantasy sports for the large offtrack building. If they can pull that off, it will result in reaching a much younger demographic.
The vaccinations and lower levels of Covid cases allowed the fairgrounds to stage the racing meet and the junior livestock show and auction during the normal June/July window as well as welcome back a reduced crowd for the Scottish Games and the traditional Good Guys auto show in August. They’ve also had large crowds for other events.
The county fair was shifted to the fall (Oct. 22-31) with hours moved accordingly because this will be the first fair when school is in session. The fair will require advance ticket purchase and will operate touchless throughout. The advance sale will allow the fair to contact people if there are important last minute changes. When asked it he had a maximum crowd in mind, he deferred speaking publicly while indicating his team had certainly thought it through.
Transforming the grounds meant building a equestrian center for competitions that will put horses in some of the stalls. There were eight meets scheduled this year until the pandemic got in the way.
Hoban also described a couple of areas on the grounds as land banks—the recreational vehicle parking area and the driving range off Bernal Ave. The onsite campground needs to expand and will take up some of that parking space.
The site of the Halloween show at Gate 8 is planned for a hotel in the long term. Hoban sees that as a great use because all of the other Pleasanton lodging properties—with the exception of the Rose Hotel—are located on the I-580 corridor. Having a hotel on the grounds within walking distance will be a major plus.
The fair also has invested in major infrastructure improvements to both the wastewater system and the electrical system. It also added solar panels that are providing the payments for a loan with the county. It has refurbished the older core buildings next to the grandstand, painting them white with black ceilings so they are ready for business meetings or trade shows.
The next big project that is getting underway is an urban farm. It will have a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, agriculture and arts and math) focus. Technology already is enhancing agriculture and the fair promises to help spark that interest in young people as well as show them where the food in the supermarket originates. It’s estimated at a $9 million project that the fair foundation is raising funds to support.
The other big ticket item is to rehabilitate and update the amphitheater. Hoban said the stage is inadequate for today’s touring shows. There are ambitious plans to bring it to state-of-the-art with a VIP area for special events. He’d like to see 20-25 touring shows in addition to the fair shows.
If you get the idea that Hoban’s plate was full before the pandemic, consider what it’s become. The goal hasn’t changed—to make the fairgrounds the No. 1 event center in the East Bay if not the Bay Area.