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Front & Center: Rich Hartzell has cultivated a successful Spokane County Fair

Rich Hartzell is the Spokane Interstate Fair & Expo Center director. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Rich Hartzell is the Spokane Interstate Fair & Expo Center director. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

It could be said Spokane’s first interstate fair was ahead of its time.

Organized by the Washington and Idaho Fair Association, the inaugural event took place in September 1886 – three years before Washington was granted statehood and four years ahead of Idaho.

This year’s fair again takes place in September, running the 9th through the 18th.

It is Spokane County Fair and Expo Center director Rich Hartzell’s job to make sure the event, if not ahead of its time, at least keeps up with the times.

For instance, the 1916 fair featured Miss Two Feathers and her horse, Clatawn, diving from a four-story platform into a 10-foot-deep pool.

This year? A man will swim in a glass tank teeming with sharks as he narrates the experience through a microphone in his mask.

In addition to sharks and traditional agricultural displays, the Spokane County Interstate Fair at 404 N. Havana St. promises the latest carnival rides, a rodeo, entertainment by Kenny Loggins and country music singers Randy Hauser and Lee Brice, a magician, truck and tractor pulls, and a demolition derby.

During a recent interview, Hartzell recalled competing in his first state fair, what he likes most about his job, and why it’s important that agriculture continues to play a prominent role in future fairs.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Hartzell: On a small farm outside Monroe, Washington, on the West Side.

S-R: What were your interests back then?

Hartzell: Animals – specifically dairy cattle. By the time I was 16, I had five or six cows.

S-R: Did you have to milk them?

Hartzell: Twice a day. At 5:30 in the morning, and when I was turning out for sports – track and football primarily – they were waiting for me when I got home. I sold the milk to Darigold.

S-R: Did Monroe have a fair?

Hartzell: Oh, yeah. And they still do.

S-R: Did you participate?

Hartzell: Yes. When I was 11, I exhibited a heifer named Little May and won a blue ribbon. Later I managed that fair for eight years.

S-R: What was your first job off the farm?

Hartzell: I bucked hay bales for a neighbor when I was 12 or 13.

S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?

Hartzell: My ag classes, although I enjoyed English, too.

S-R: Where did you go to college?

Hartzell: WSU. I got a degree in animal science in 1971 and was a full-time dairy farmer for 31 years.

S-R: How did you come to manage the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe?

Hartzell: I started out as superintendent of the dairy department – a semi-volunteer position. And because it can be hard to make a living in the dairy business, I started working there full time in 1990. I became fair manager in 1994.

S-R: What brought you to Spokane?

Hartzell: I was on my way to Pullman for a football game when a friend invited me to stop by a state fair convention in Wenatchee. When I got there, he told me Dolly Hughes, the director of the Spokane Interstate Fair, was looking for an events coordinator. I hired on in ’04, and when Dolly retired four years later, I applied and became director.

S-R: How many people do you expect at this year’s fair?

Hartzell: Around 200,000.

S-R: And all the other fairground events this year, combined?

Hartzell: Another 200,000.

S-R: Does the Fair and Expo Center pay for itself?

Hartzell: Yes. We’re what’s called an enterprise fund, so we don’t take money from Spokane County’s general fund. We operate on what we bring in.

S-R: How would you describe your management style?

Hartzell: This has to be a team effort. Whether you’re in the office or on the maintenance crew, everyone needs to work well together. And, of course, there’s a lot of pressure the week before the fair, when vendors are moving in and everybody wants the best spot. So I always try to have a sense of humor and keep things on the light side.

S-R: Did any lessons learned dairy farming transfer to this job?

Hartzell: Absolutely. Farmers have to figure out ways to save money and generate more. Those lessons don’t leave you when you go into an office and have to run a business, which is what this is.

S-R: How has the business evolved since you arrived in 2004?

Hartzell: I’d like to think we’ve enhanced customer service, both for visitors and promoters. We used to have one or two ATMs during the fair, and now we have eight. And we’ve brought in new events, such as the Washington state quilters show, Farm Chicks (antique and crafts sale), and a motorcycle show.

S-R: Did the recession affect fair revenue?

Hartzell: We definitely saw an impact – and not just during the fair. Overall attendance fell, as did the amount of space vendors rented.

S-R: What else affects fair attendance?

Hartzell: Weather is absolutely No. 1.

S-R: How about an act’s popularity?

Hartzell: Sure. And it’s a gamble, because we book acts as much as a year ahead of time.

S-R: What’s it cost to book a grandstand act?

Hartzell: Huey Lewis and the News was right at $100,000 (in 2012), and it paid off. Acts like that and the Beach Boys (in 2009) fill the stands and generate lots of energy, which is why I enjoy coordinating grandstand entertainment so much.

S-R: Does that include pampering celebrities?

Hartzell: Some want a certain brand of iced tea or peanut butter backstage, which is fine. But if they request alcohol, we say no. They have to get that on their own.

S-R: What are you most proud of?

Hartzell: I like to think I’ve improved the atmosphere by bringing in strong entertainment, like this year’s educational shark show. I’d been looking for something new and different, because that’s what you need to get people through the gate.

S-R: How much did the shark act cost you?

Hartzell: Twenty thousand. But that’s covered by general-admission tickets.

S-R: Which are …

Hartzell: Ten dollars for adults, and $7 for seniors, military and youth. Kids 6 and under get in free.

S-R: What attractions do you need to fulfill your mission as an interstate fair?

Hartzell: The most important thing is to educate people about agriculture – from growing grain and hay to raising animals – because people today are so removed from where their food comes from. Live entertainment and a wide variety of food are second. And the carnival is next.

S-R: Who’s your competition?

Hartzell: Fairs try hard not to step on each other – to avoid overlap. One reason is that many of our vendors, as well as the carnival and entertainment, move from one fair to the next. So it works better for everyone if we don’t compete.

S-R: What will fairgoers see less of today than, say, 15 years ago?

Hartzell: As far as agriculture, they’ll see fewer large animals, because it’s harder to get people to exhibit. Part of that is due to the economy, and part of it is because young people aren’t as involved as past generations were.

S-R: Will fairs have livestock exhibits 10 years from now?

Hartzell: I think so. But it will be less a competition and more a display, which I think is unfortunate. The fair used to be an opportunity for people to show what they’d accomplished with their animals and crops. That’s the tradition we’re trying to hang on to, but it’s tough.

S-R: This year’s Oregon State Fair agricultural displays included nine marijuana plants. Do you expect to see a marijuana exhibit at our fair anytime soon?

Hartzell: It took quite a few years after the legalization of alcohol before beers were entered in fair competition. I am thinking likewise for marijuana.

S-R: What’s the career outlook for your industry?

Hartzell: It’s pretty bright. The thing we may not see as much of are future managers coming in with any agricultural background. And it’s important for managers to appreciate what people in agriculture do. When that element goes away, it’s no longer a fair.

S-R: Do you still raise livestock?

Hartzell: Yes. My wife, Eileen, and I have about 25 head on our place up in Deer Park. We still enjoy breeding and showing animals. And our grandchildren enjoy it, which is a big part of why we still do it.

S-R: Do you milk them?

Hartzell: Some of them – at 4:30 a.m., before I come to work.

S-R: Is there anything about yourself you’d like to change?

Hartzell: Probably I need to slow down a little bit – for my wife’s sake, if nothing else. (laugh)

This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to be profiled, contact Michael Guilfoil at mguilfoil@comcast.net.


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