About seven weeks before opening day, the Kansas State Fair received a jolt most fair organizers dread. Denny Stoecklein, who has been General Manager of the fair 12 years (he has been with the fair for two decades) informed the board that he was leaving the position.
The split is described as amicable. Stoecklein, who did not respond to phone calls or emails for this article, took the position of Director of Marketing & Communications at Hutchinson Community College. But the suddenness of his decision coming amid the final stages of event production put the Kansas State Fair organizers on disaster prevention alert.
Jaw dropping, " is how Harmon Bliss, President of the Kansas State Fair Board, described the news of Stoecklein's resignation. He called an emergency meeting of the 13-person board. With opening day of the fair less than two months away - the 2015 Kansas State Fair runs September 11-20 - the board decided to postpone filling the position. Instead Lori Hart, Assistant Manager, was promoted to the newly created position of Interim General Manager and the board formed a 5-person committee that will explore the options of how to fill the top spot.
"We have a fair to put on, that is our first priority," Bliss explained.
The main work of the committee will not even begin until after closing day of the Kansas State Fair, and the committee itself will not be searching for candidates, but set up a system for that search. "We want to look at approximate timelines, and how we will look for candidates, where we will advertise," said Bliss. "We have five or six different options in how we are going to collect the data we need, so we will be looking at that."
Bliss declined to speculate as to when an announcement about the how the position will be filled, although he hoped that "by December or early January," a new general manager would be named.
Another reason the fair board selected a cautious approach to filling the position, is that the new General Manager will have some serious fairground funding issues to contend with. "The state is not looking to put money into the fair," said Bliss. "We get money through a variety of ways, including the carnival, ticket sales, exhibitors fees, and we do a fairly good job and we are very solvent."
But like other fairs, fairgrounds upkeep and building maintenance have suffered, especially during the economic downturn. "We are in need of some capital improvement," said Bliss. We have a horse barn, an arena and other facilities with some structural issues. We want our next general manager to be good at working with different organizations and good at raising money. We are going to have to get extra funds and raise some big dollars."
In the meantime, the board felt that to ensure the success of the 2015 Kansas State Fair, the emergency measure of an Interim Manger was necessary. "We decided to make Loris interim manager," said Bliss. "She's been the number two person in charge, so that made sense, she has the full confidence of the board, and all of the staff."
"I respect the process," said Hart. "I agree with the idea that let's focus on the fair, and make sure it runs smoothly. "The timing right now is that we are so closed to the fair, my energy is on the fair."
On the heels of the fair's conclusion she will also supervise creating a new budget for 2016. "We also have to have our budget to the state due by October 15th," she said.
Expectations couldn't be higher for the 2015 Kansas State Fair. Last year, attendance reached 353,229 - the highest in 16 years - with a 3.32 percent increase in gross revenue (gross revenue was $1,264,153.75).
Hart has been with the fair for 17 years and as Assistant Manger for 14 of those years. "I have been involved in all aspects of the fair," she said. In her new position, she will be overseeing a staff of 20 and the approximately 500 events with the fair.
As second-in-command, Hart worked hand-in-hand with Stoecklein in nearly all aspects of the fair, including promotion, marketing, community outreach, and event organizations. In addition, she was directly involved with the Kansas State Fair Foundation, including organization a fund-raising auction for that organization, which is governed by its own board, that takes place on the day preceding opening day of the fair.
Hart will also be working at a disadvantage Stoecklein never faced. The position she leaves to take the helm will be left vacant, another decision the fair board postponed making until after the fair. "I don't have an assistant manager," she said. "I will be delegating more duties, and the staff is picking up the slack. Everyone will be working more hours."
"We are going to be short staffed, but we have all the department heads in place, and we've discussed this," said Bliss. "We have a very good staff. It will be challenging with all the different segments of the fair."
Hart did say what will be new for her is the role of public spokesperson for the fair. "I will be doing all the radio and TV, but most will be broadcasted from the fairgrounds, but I have one morning show in Wichita," she said. "We're still figuring all that out."
In fact, having worked on the executive team with Stoecklein for more than a decade makes Hart confident she will be able to handle the pressure of being in the captain's seat for this fair. But she admitted, "being interviewed by the press is new to me."
A little more familiar will be the meetings with groups who support and participate in the fair, such as Kiwanis Club and civic organizations. Previously, she and Stoecklein would "divide & conquer," sharing these responsibilities. Many of the meetings are about logistics and practical matters that were under her direct purview as Assistant Manager - "I have experience meeting and speaking with small groups, meeting one-on-one," she said. Although she isn't sure of the exact number of meetings that still need to take place prior to the fair, she estimated that about 120 different organizations are involved with the event.
Asked if the 2015 Kansas State Fair is an audition for the General Manager job, Hart said, "maybe in some people's mind, but I'm not thinking about that. I have an open mind and free heart, and if I am being auditioned, so be it. Every fair is different, and Mother Nature is always the main factor. I believe that if you stay methodical in what you have to do, your efforts will pay off."
Building on the success of the 2014 Kansas State Fair, Hart anticipates residents of the Sunflower State will find the this year's fair even more enriching and fun . Last year the Kansas State Fair opened up a new building, the State Fair Museum, which commemorates the fair and generates nostalgia. "I'm very excited about the theme for this year's exhibit, the "Year of the Ride," which will be about amusement rides," she said. The exhibit coincides with the 100th anniversary of a Ye Ole Mill, a water ride and permanent facility of the fair —"there's only three in the country and this is the only one in the state," she said.
She's also looking forward to the music line line-up, which includes Three Days Grace, Joan Jet and the Black Hearts, Sam Hunt, and The Oak Ridge Boys, "We have something for everybody at this year's fair," she said.