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Government Insider to Lead L.A. County Fair

1/2/2017

By Timothy Herrick

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Miguel A. Santana, an administration official in both the county, and more recently, City of Los Angeles has been named President and CEO Executive Officer of the Los Angeles County Fair Association (LACFA), the private nonprofit Association that manages the 487-acre Fairplex in Pomona.  In this role, Santana will oversee the 19-day  Los Angeles County Fair, which opens September 1st of 2017 for its 95th anniversary. 

Santana, a City Administrative Officer for the City of Los Angeles has more than two decades experience working both in city as well as county government. While Santana has no fair or live event management experience, he has been attending the LACF since he was a child. "I grew up coming to the fair, which was a 10 minute drive from where I grew up," he said. "Now that I am raisinPhoto By g my own family, I take my own kids on our annual pilgrimage to the fair. I have visited the fair every year and  I am very excited to assume an oversight role of the fair." 

One of the largest fairs in the North America, the LACF has been on growth trajectory in recent years. The 2016 LACF attracted 1,317,370 attendees, up 3.18 percent from 2015. But the 2016 fair operated under a cloud of controversy. Jim Henwood  resigned after 20 years as President & CEO of LACFA in 2016 when several scathing media reports accused the association of over paying its CEO. The Los Angeles Times published an article about the LACFA, with the provocative headline: "Head of money-losing L.A. County Fair Assn. made nearly $900,000 in total compensation."

The fair appointed Michael Ortiz, Chair of the LACFA Board and former President of California State Polytechnic University, as interim CEO.  The expectation was the new CEO would be named before opening day, but plans changed and Ortiz said at the time: "I thought that the time table would be one that we would have a new CEO named before the fair started...but the search committee was taking more time than we thought to identify the person who had experience to run this fair.  It turned out to be more important to get the right person for the position than to have some one named for this fair.    It turned out the fair association set their sights beyond the annual fair and focused on improving the profitability of the massive Fairplex, a 543 acre event, entertainment and meeting complex, encompassing the Sheraton Fairplex Hotel and Conference Center, the NHRA Motorsports Museum and Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, McKinley's Grille, KOA RV Park, Finish Line Sports Grill, Cornucopia Foods and the Learning Centers which encompasses Fairtime Learning, The Child Development Center, The Career and Technical Education Center (CTEC) and the Junior Fair Board. 

"We are gratified to have found someone with Miguel's vision, management expertise and history of dedicated public service," said Ortiz. "During his 24-year career in county and city government, Miguel has tackled some of the region's most intractable problems with amazing results."

Santana said he sees his selection as an opportunity to guide the future development and management of one of the largest public assets in L.A. County.

"This is 500 acres of pure potential," said Santana. "My hope is that by forging even closer ties with nearby communities, local educational institutions and county, federal, state and local public officials, we will transform the mission of Fairplex into a lifestyle - one that creates a 21st century sustainable community and economic engine grounded in its agricultural roots, from the micro-sourcing of our food and craftsmanship to culinary entrepreneurship."

Santana said he accepted a negotiated annual salary of $485,000, a little more than half the contentious wage that led to Henwood's dismissal. He also declared that controversy at the helm of Fairplex and the LACF "is behind us, and the important thing is that board has made a decision on a new President and CEO and negotiated a fair salary and one that reflects both the responsibility of the annual fair and the broader responsibilities of the entire campus. It reflects the desire to move forward to what I was recruited to do, which is to implement a broader plan and working partners in the surrounding areas."

This future vision includes expanded collaboration with institutions of higher learning, most of which are only a few minutes away from the Fairplex complex. These schools include Southern California University, Western University of Health Sciences, North-West College, Pomona College, The Collins College of Hospitality Management, Carrington College and Cal Poly Pomona College of Business Administration. "There's no reason we can't develop more partnerships and create more opportunities for young people going forward into the future. Some of the best colleges and classrooms are only 10 minute drive from campus. We are right in the heart of a number of educational institutions, and we can work in partnership with these schools as we train our young people for the jobs of the future."

Those opportunities he sees extending to the LACF itself. "There are tremendous opportunities for education and exposing young people and children to the sourcing for their food and other agricultural issues at the fair. The fair has its mission and tradition, and the question is how do we take that into the 21st century. Water is becoming a scare resource, and how do we connect efforts to preserve our water resources to the technology industry. What happens at the fair can be a very important educational resource. We can improve the overall fair experience for our clients."

He added, "one of the mandates is to develop a stronger event that is more than just a seasonal event, but a lifestyle that doesn't just happen in the fall or late summer, but works all year long for the community."

Specifically regarding the annual fair, Santana plans to prioritize growing the millennial fairgoer segments. "Millennials are the fastest growing population and we need find ways the fair can speak to a new generation. To successfully market to this generation, is to find out what this generation is looking for in a fair, and that  means carefully watching their habits and finding ways we can deliver those activities, or better promote the actives we currently have to millennials. I think there's a tremendous opportunity for entrepreneurship in culinary arts at the fair that will attract more young people to the fair." 

His main attribute is not so much in fair management, but "understanding how government works, and how the county works," said Santana. "I have been doing this for more than  25 years and I know how to maximize public access. This campus is a great public asset with a tremendous amount of  potential. Being the city's administrative officer requires a similar skill set to managing a fair. This campus is a city, and has similar issues of public safety, revenue creation and strategic planning." 

Dubbed "LA's Mr. Fix-it" by Los Angeles Magazine, prior to working for the city of Los Angeles, where he reports both to the Mayor and the 15-member City Council, Santana spent 16 years in county government, rising to the position of Deputy Chief Executive Officer, overseeing several social service agencies whose annual budgets exceeded $9 billion a year. He was recruited to the city in 2009 by former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and as City Administrative Officer helped successfully restore the City's finances.

Santana was reappointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2013. Since then, Santana worked to strengthen the City's bond rating and developed a comprehensive strategy, in coordination with the county, to address the region's homeless crisis. According to the LACFA press release, Santana was instrumental in developing Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion bond issue to build housing for the city's homeless population, one of the largest in the nation. Proposition HHH won overwhelming voter approval.

Santana's selection comes at an important time in the relationship between LACFA and the county - who owns the Fairplex property. In addition to the Henwood salary controversy earlier this year, recent audits indicated that a new evaluation of the lease agreement between the county and LACFA is needed. According to the press release, Santana has a 20-year working relationship with First District Supervisor Hilda Solis and long-term ties countywide and  is looking forward to bringing a renewed sense of trust, mutual respect and shared vision to the LACFA's nearly 80-year partnership with the County.

Santana said leading LACFA is "a return back to the county family."

 Santana earned a Master's Degree in Public Administration from Harvard University and earned his B.A. in Sociology and Latin American Studies from Whittier College. He also serves on the boards of the United Way of Los Angeles, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Discovery Cube Los Angeles and LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes.


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