Disneyland is supposed to be the “happiest place on Earth.” But in the Owens Valley, that title has to go to the Tri-County Fairgrounds, or at least that’s the image Jim Tatum had in mind, without the rodents with oversized heads, when he took the job of Chief Executive Officer 20 years ago.
“Ninety-eight percent of the fairground events are for fun,” he said. “Even the wakes turn into parties. You just walk around the Fair, as small as our community is, you see relationships rekindled. That’s why every tree has a bench around it. The Fair is a social event.”
Tatum will be leaving the CEO title behind when he takes on the duties of Deputy Director of Inyo County’s Public Works Department, Monday, Dec. 3. His relationship to the board members and staff he’s worked with for two decades will probably not change. He’s recommended the board not replace him, saving a chunk of the facility’s budget to compensate for the loss of nearly $300,000 in state funding, but he has volunteered to “do whatever they want me to do,” to keep the fairgrounds a center for the community.
“I’d been contemplating a move over the last year,” he said. “I wanted to make sure a lot of the major players (board members and staff) were going to be in place to keep the fairgrounds going.”
According to Tatum, the state’s Fair industry has fluctuated over his tenure at Tri-County, but the budget cutbacks that started in 2011 were more than a fluctuation; they were something of a death knell. “2013 was the year the rubber would meet the road,” Tatum said. “We had a great 2012 Fair, one of the most lucrative” and that healthy bottom line was generated by reductions in expenditures, matched with increased revenues from fair vendors.
Tatum outlines the effort to turn a thrashed post-fair grounds back to the green, pristine fairgrounds county residents are used to. “We’re able to get water back on the lawns, aerate, fertilize and get ready for the (Fall Colors) Car Show four weeks later. We had rentals four days after the Fair. It’s kind of what we do. We have processes in place that are very sustainable. I’m comfortable making the move. Is the move emotional? God, yes it is. This is the only job I’ve had.”
Tatum is part of an old Bishop family. He left to go to school, came back with a degree in finance and went to work with his brother, ranching. He took jobs coaching, substitute teaching, “the kinds of things you do when you’re 22 and just trying to survive. The fairgrounds was my job.”
At 32, he decided to apply for the Fairgrounds job the Friday before the Monday deadline. A friend helped with his resume; Tatum made phone calls asking associates and friends for letters of reference they’d have to drop off at the office because there was no time to mail them. When he showed up late Monday afternoon, there were 30 or 50 letters already there.
According to Tatum, the fairgrounds board members “rolled the dice,” hiring him over 50-plus applicants. He inherited a facility in decent shape but one with “an overall perception that was not very good,” he said. “The previous management wasn’t really user-friendly. It’s always easier to say ’no’ (to community requests and ideas); there’s no work involved in saying no.”
In 1992, there were 40 interim contracts that generated roughly 60 days of use of the facility, plus the five-day Tri-County Fair. After 20 years of saying yes, there are between 140 and 160 contracts and the grounds are in use 300 days a year. Eastern Sierra Roller Hockey came on, the Home Show, the Owens Valley Cruisers Fall Colors Car Show, the California High School Rodeo finals. The irrigated lawns were expanded from about a tenth of an acre to 45 acres, the buildings were upgraded, the restrooms remodeled, the main arena grandstands were replaced and the 40-year-old wood from the seats were used by George Kinney’s ROP carpentry class to build a new stage. All in all, Tatum estimates there has been a $4-5 million investment in the physical plant.
Tatum had to put together a budget and a three-year maintenance plan in the first two weeks on the job. Once that was done, he hit the pavement, promoting the fairgrounds. “I started picking people’s brains,” he said, “to find out what people didn’t like about the facility, what the problems were.” Then, he started making some changes and the fairgrounds started making money.
There’s little doubt Tatum is one of the good guys, but he admits one of his biggest motivators is being told he can’t do something. Case in point: the Tri-County Fair’s flirtation with arena motocross. The “can’t do” element that year, more than 10 years ago, wasn’t the event itself; it was having dirt bikes flying over carefully crafted hills and valleys one night and an equestrian event, requiring a flat, well-groomed arena surface, the next morning. “We had to flatten out the arena overnight,” Tatum recalled. “I went home about 5:30 a.m., showered and got back at 6:30. There was really no way to catch up. That was the longest five days of my life.” He was also told he couldn’t have a destruction derby one night and a rodeo the next. Compared to the motocross, that transition was a walk in the park.
“There’s no question,” Tatum said, “the challenges at the county will be different. My perception of what I was hired to do is to run the day-to-day operations. There are a lot of good, quality people there. I know a lot of them. I truly believe in getting people’s input. There’s a lot of experience in that department; people who have been there 25-30 years. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel. One constant is that people like being associated with something successful. People want to be productive, to go home knowing they’re moving in the right direction.
“What excites me (about the job) are the opportunities. Just think of the diverse nature of this county, from the environment to the people who live here. There is a huge amount of untapped resources. Over the course of time, when I learn the system, I’ll be able to expand and perhaps bring some positive change … My hopes are that we can develop an environment that is conducive to people wanting to come in and interact with us … It’s all about the people; we’re all public servants. I never, ever want to lose that mindset.”
Despite Tatum’s enthusiasm for this new challenge, the Tri-County Fairgrounds will be a hard place to leave. He cleared the pictures and memories out of his office, the same one he’s had for 20 years, over a weekend; it was too hard a job to do with his staff down the hall. One thing Tatum emphasizes is the significance of the fairgrounds and the Fair to the community. “I never get tired of seeing people bringing entries to the Fair. I watch those same people go through the process, of creating whatever and bringing it in. For people to invest that much time; it means a lot to them. Then on the first day of the Fair, they come in and go straight to the exhibits to see how their entry looks, how they did. It’s amazing the talent people have.
“There hasn’t been one day I didn’t love this job,” he said. “One of the advantages of being here this long is the kids. To see those kids who were 9 years old when I started; now they’re in their late 20s and have families of their own. The ones who were 17 or 18 are almost 40 now and are making a difference in this world. That’s neat to see.”