The Second-Happiest Place on Earth

Fred Schenk is the magic behind the San Diego County Fair

Published in 2017 San Diego Super Lawyers — February 2017

Fred Schenk grew up in Los Angeles but has fond memories of going to the San Diego County Fair as a teenager. 

“My sister was in law school,” says the partner at Casey Gerry Schenk Francavilla Blatt & Penfield, “and I would come down in the summer to visit, and she and her husband would take me to the fair. I grew to love it.”

He also grew to run it.

In 2002, Schenk was one of nine members appointed to the board of the 22nd District Agricultural Association by Gov. Gray Davis. The district, commonly known as the Del Mar Fairgrounds, is home to daily events; Schenk was assigned with overseeing the fair.   

It is, oddly, a political appointment. “I served while Gray Davis was governor, and then Arnold became our governor,” Schenk says. “When my term expired, he was able to get rid of me; Schwarzenegger’s office called and thanked me for my service. Six years I was off the board when Jerry Brown was elected, and his office called me and reappointed me.”

Schenk served as president of the board between 2013 and January 2016, which meant he was in charge of contracts for the grounds’ fall music festival, horse races and security personnel. “I oversaw every aspect of every activity at the fairgrounds,” he says. 

The San Diego County Fair is the biggest in the state and the fourth-largest in North America. This past summer, it broke its previous attendance record, bringing in over 1.6 million people. “In a good year, the Padres feel blessed if they get 2 million people through the gates from April through September,” says Schenk. “We got 1.6 million in 27 days.”

The fair begins in early June and ends around July 4. Schenk likens the annual process to “building a city”; the grounds go up about a month before the fair starts, and get torn down within 12 days of its closing.

Changes Schenk has implemented during his terms include a program called Plant Grow Eat, which teaches children about sustainability and nutrition; spending over $5 million to restore an estuary adjacent to their property; and boosting the fair’s recycling program to cover 92 percent of its waste. The fair also self-generates most of its energy with solar panels, and was the first in the nation to become smoke- and e-cigarette-free. 

“And yes,” he adds, “we also have all the crazy foods that people love to come and eat—plus great entertainment.”

This past summer, musical acts included Brian Wilson, Lady Antebellum and Carly Rae Jepsen. “A band like Lady Antebellum, they cost $350,000 for one night,” he says. “So we’d better make sure we’re making the right decisions when we’re spending that kind of money on one night’s entertainment. We’ve got to fill a whole month with nine stages.”

In the last four years, the board has also worked with Amtrak and local school districts to set up park-and-rides for fairgoers to reduce highway congestion. It also provides transportation to kids from Tijuana. “We provide a full day for these children, who would never get to experience this kind of entertainment,” Schenk says.  

That, says Schenk, is his favorite part of the fair: “Looking and seeing the kids—the eyes open in wonder when they walk in, many for the first time, to see something that is truly a magical place.

“Disneyland likes to say it’s the happiest place on earth,” he adds. “I say we’re the second, and we’re a lot cheaper.” 

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