Boyhood memories lead alumni to careers in state fair management
Like tens of thousands of other Midwesterners, Rick Frenette and Jim Sinclair log a lot of hours every August taking in the sights, smells and sounds of the state fair.
But for the two friends —both Chippewa Falls natives and UW-Eau Claire graduates —their walks down the midways at the state fairs in Wisconsin and Minnesota are as much business as pleasure these days.
Frenette is the executive director of the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis, and Sinclair is the deputy general manager of the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul.
"Once the fair is under way, it takes on a life of its own," Sinclair said a few weeks before the 12-day 2011 Minnesota State Fair kicked off in August. "When it begins, it means all the planning is done and we're in execution mode. I spend a lot of time during the fair moving around the fairgrounds. I like to talk with people and to observe what people are experiencing. I'm there early in the morning and I'm usually the last to leave every night sometime after midnight.
"When the fair ends, the party is over. We clean up, catch our breath and then quickly go into the planning and analyzing mode."
Long days and nights working at the fair are nothing new to Frenette or Sinclair, both of whom spent many summer days during their youth working at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair in Chippewa Falls.
Frenette was 12 when he began selling Pronto Pups (a special battered corn dog) from the wagon his dad, Don, would set up at the local fair every summer.
"One of my earliest fair memories is working the six-day fair with my cousin," said Frenette, whose father eventually became part owner and manager of the fair. "Sometimes we'd work 15 hours a day, but we always got Saturday night off to take in the fair. I've never forgotten the feeling of enjoying a night at the fair with my cousin and my friends. I looked forward to it every year when I was a boy."
As a young boy, Sinclair would race to those same Chippewa Falls fairgrounds to watch the carnival train unload and load. By the time he was a teenager, he was parking cars and taking on other jobs that allowed him to spend his days enjoying the small-town fair. It was Frenette's father who hired him every summer, including throughout his college years, Sinclair said.
After graduating from UW-Eau Claire in 1973 with a degree in sociology, Sinclair planned to go to law school to become an attorney like his father.
"But I have always been enamored of the fair," Sinclair said. "I've always felt like I was born to be in this industry. So before committing to law school, I went to the Minnesota State Fair offices and knocked on the door. I needed to give it a shot before I said yes to law school. I was fortunate enough to be hired as an administrative assistant, and I've never looked back. I've worn a lot of different hats over time, so I've basically done it all here."
When Frenette graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 1974 with a degree in mathematics, he went to work for his father, who owned several small businesses in Chippewa Falls.
"I grew up around fairs, and I knew I loved everything about them," said Frenette, who also has great childhood memories of annual family trips to the Minnesota and Wisconsin state fairs. "But I didn't know that working for a fair could be a career path. I was in my early 30s when Jim called and asked me if I would be interested in a position with the Minnesota State Fair. My dad was sad to see me leave the family business but was very supportive because he understood my love of fairs."
After spending several years with the Minnesota State Fair, Frenette set his sights on being in a top position at a fair, something he knew wouldn't happen for him in Minnesota because that organization already had a strong leadership team. For nearly 20 years he managed state fairs in Ohio and Utah before returning to his home state in 2010 to become the executive director of the Wisconsin State Fair, a position he describes as his dream job.
"I grew up in the concession end of a fair waiting on people," Frenette said. "I've always loved people watching at the fair because it's such a diverse demographic of people. The people who are part of a fair also are unique and live a different life than most of us, which I always found interesting. I've always been passionate about fairs, and it's still amazing to me that I could turn that passion into a career. It's challenging but so rewarding."
While few visitors realize it, the fair industry is a big business, Frenette said, noting that state fairs employ dozens of college-educated full-time staff members in addition to the many part-time seasonal positions that are filled during the fairs' busiest times.
"We generate millions of dollars a year and provide important services to the public as well as to our state's manufacturing and agricultural industries," Frenette said. "We have been around for 160 years, and people still look to us for agricultural education and other important information. We're not only about entertainment."
The state fairs provide the agricultural connections that bring people back to the nation's roots, Sinclair said of the mission of state fairs across the country. That mission has become even more important as many agricultural education programs have been phased out in schools and elsewhere, he said.
"State fairs are big on honoring our country's roots, and our roots are in agriculture, education, youth and family activities," Sinclair said. "We provide a much-needed backdrop for agricultural education. Many people —especially in urban areas —don't know how food gets to the shelves of their grocery stores or what's involved in growing things. Our challenge is to stay relevant and interesting while reminding people about our country's commitment to agriculture."
Providing visitors with opportunities to witness animals being born and other experiences they don't have in their daily lives is a priority for state fair planners, said Sinclair, who now oversees the Minnesota State Fair's exhibition, attractions and concessions areas. Making exhibits interactive and experiential is critical given the fast-paced and high-tech world people now live in, he said.
While there is a certain amount of sameness each year to the schedule and the activities of a state fair, there also is variety and change, Sinclair said.
"The fair traditions are important, but we also need to make changes to keep it interesting," Sinclair said. "We need to stay relevant and current while staying close to our mission."
I grew up and matured at UW-Eau Claire. It prepared me to go out into the world and to pursue a career that I love. —Jim Sinclair
The state fair industry is different from many industries because state fairs don't compete with one another, so organizers work cooperatively, Sinclair said. The collaboration among fair organizers is among the reasons the fair industry is so rewarding, he said, noting that he and Frenette have developed such a strong bond after working together in the fair industry for so many years that they are almost like brothers.
"Every state fair is a reflection of the fabric of that individual state," Sinclair said. "We all compete with other events and activities for people's time and money, but we don't compete with each other. There is a lot of sharing of information and experiences among the organizers. Many of my best friends are in this industry because we support and help each other."
The ability to tap into the expertise of other professionals in the industry —along with his four decades of experience working in state fair management —helped Frenette manage what was likely his most difficult professional challenge to-date. Nearly a dozen Wisconsin State Fair visitors were injured when a large group of youths turned violent just outside the fair's gates after opening night this summer. Fair organizers had some problems with youths being disorderly on the grounds that night and made a few arrests, but the real problems happened after the fair closed, Frenette said.
As a result of the violence, extra security officers were added and Frenette took the unprecedented step of keeping unattended teens off the fairgrounds after 5 p.m. throughout the fair.
"We felt we had to be the leaders in preventing this violence from happening again and to send a message to our fairgoers that the Wisconsin State Fair is a safe place for families and there would be zero tolerance for behavior that would distract from our commitment to safety," Frenette said. "The public responded well to our new policy, and our attendance was up over 4 percent from the previous year."
Managing the melee underscores just how complex a job it is to oversee an event that is designed to attract tens of thousands of visitors of all ages and backgrounds, Frenette said.
In addition to public safety issues, Frenette said state fair managers also face many political and financial challenges. Government funding for state fairs has been eliminated in many states, including in Wisconsin and Minnesota, so fair managers must be strong business managers who can identify new ways to produce revenues, he said.
In Wisconsin, the fair organization is considered a state agency even though it is not state-funded, Frenette said. As a result, political actions —such as recent changes in state employee benefits —impact fair employees and fair operations, he said.
In addition, both the Wisconsin State Fair and Minnesota State Fair grounds are large complexes that host a number of events when the state fairs are not under way. Overseeing the facilities and organizing other events, some of which attract more than 100,000 visitors, is handled by state fair staff, Frenette said, noting the Wisconsin complex also includes a popular race track.
"A career in fair management is a unique experience," Frenette said. "It's different and it's challenging, which is what I love about it."
Sinclair said his time at UW-Eau Claire prepared him well for a career that requires such an unusual skill set.
"I grew up and matured at UW-Eau Claire," Sinclair said. "It prepared me to go out into the world and to pursue a career that I love. I'm honored to be part of this industry. I've had a great life because of this industry. For a kid from Chippewa Falls, it's all been pretty neat."