PLEASANTON -- Rick Pickering boosted attendance, expanded business and tamped down gang violence at the Alameda County Fair that he has managed for nearly 14 years. Now he is moving on to run a bigger show -- the California State Fair in Sacramento.
Pickering begins Dec. 28 at CalExpo after being credited with improving the popularity and financial performance for the 100-year-old county fair just west of downtown Pleasanton.
The Alameda County Fair, the largest in the Bay Area, drew its largest crowd during its 17-day run in June and July this year, when 534,574 people attended. Total attendance grew 44 percent over the last four years, making it the 33rd busiest fair in North America.
Fair officials credit the hardworking and detail-oriented Pickering with helping make the gains at the fair, a blend of traditional livestock shows and commercial exhibits with horse racing, modern carnival rides and popular music concerts.
"We have greatly appreciated Rick's wise insight and business leadership over the years," Janet Lockhart, the current Alameda County Fair Board president and a former Dublin city councilwoman, said a written statement. "We know that he will be able to further strengthen California's fair industry from his new position."
Pickering credited the fair's success to his staff's hard work, building relationships with the community, and willingness to try new things to supplement the traditional attractions such as livestock shows and pie making contests. In 2011, the fair gained international attention in social media when two people at the fair cooked a 777 pound hamburger to set a world record.
"That hamburger went viral," Pickering said Wednesday night. "You have to keep offerings for your tried and true customers, while expanding to new customers.
Pickering will be inducted next month into the Western Fair Association's Hall of Fame
Pickering, 54, will make about $155,000 per year as the CalExpo general manager.
When he was hired as Alameda County fair general manager in January 1999, the fair was in financial turmoil and struggling to contain gang violence that had spread to the popular family event.
In July 1998, a 23-year-old Richmond man involved in a gang dispute opened fire on the fair midway, hitting five gang rivals and five bystanders.
In response, the fair started using metal detectors to screen fair visitors at entrance gates, preventing further shootings.
To improve the fairground's finances and prominence, Pickering brought in more events; the Bernal Avenue fairgrounds now hosts more than 300 various events annually, attracting some 2.5 million visitors a year.
During his tenure, fairgrounds operators have made several improvements, including installation of $5 million worth of solar panels on the horse barns and a recycling program to use manure and used straw from fairgrounds barns as fertilizer on mushroom farms in Monterey County.
Fair operators last summer also succeeded in booking more widely known musical acts by switching to one concert per night, dropping the two-concert format that musicians disliked.
To offset the loss of the second concert, the fairgrounds added a big screen to show the concert to an overflow audience.
The change enabled the fair last summer to attract -- among others -- Rick Springfield, who sang the hit "Jessie's Girl." Pickering had been trying to book Springfield since the singer-guitarist's popular performance at the Pleasanton fair in 1999.
Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff