The new manager of the North Carolina State Fair is Kent Yelverton, a civil engineer who worked 26 years with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Yelverton replaces Wesley Wyatt, who retired after 38 years of state service.
The 344-acre North Carolina State Fairgrounds is a dynamic year-round multi-use entertainment venue located in Raleigh. Operating as an NCDA&CS enterprise division, the Fairgrounds hosts over 2.5 million visitors at 500 events annually, including the facility’s premiere event, the 11-day N.C. State Fair in October
An engineer to head a major fair may seem counter intuitive, the reality is that as an employee of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, he was involved in with the annual state fair, the past 17 years, which includes responsibility for construction and real estate at the Fairgrounds, as well as the Department’s other 299 facilities. When fair time came, he was onsite for the duration of the event, with the agriculture department personnel having an “all hands on deck” mentality.
However, his fair experience goes back much further than his tenure at the department of agriculture. Growing up in a farm family, Yelverton attended the Wayne Regional Agricultural Fair in Goldsboro, N.C. every year, as well as the state fair.
But more so than any other period in its long history – the first North Carolina State Fair was held in 1853 – the event may require the expertise of an engineer. In addition to constructing a pedestrian tunnel to be ready for the opening of the 2018 fair, the fair will also lose a major entrance point due to a residential development project on an adjacent property. From infrastructure and facilities to attendee flow and layout changes, the North Carolina State Fair seems to have the professional at the helm it needs the most.
“I am always pleased to have well-qualified and dedicated staff members step into new leadership roles at the department,” said Steve Troxler, Agriculture Commissioner of North Carolina. “I am confident that Kent’s background in civil engineering will bring a skill-set to the day-to-day operations of the State Fairgrounds that will be very valuable. In his previous role with our Property and Construction Division, he worked side-by-side with Fair administration to develop our current fairgrounds footprint, so he knows the facilities well and is focused on year-round operational growth.”
Carnival Warehouse: What was the first Fair you ever attended?
Kent Yelverton: Wayne Regional Agricultural Fair in Goldsboro, N.c., which was 12 miles from our family farm. We participated in the fair every year. What I remember most was the wonder of it all. I had an engineering brain, I was always looking at the mechanics, the lights, everything, thinking about what goes into making the fair happen, at a very young age.
CW: What area of fair management do you feel is your strength?
KY: I come from a civil engineering background. I am a Registered Professional Engineer, so certainly infrastructure is a strength. Engineering is also a good base for problem-solving. In addition to that, I enjoy people.
CW: Why do you think fairs are still relevant to American popular culture?
KY: Fairs offer our visitors an interaction that cannot be replaced by technology. Walk around during the Fair and you will see everyone smiling…except the tired child that doesn’t want to go home.
CW: What is the biggest challenge facing fairs today?
KY: I feel fairs are relevant, but changing demographics are our biggest challenge. We must work hard to understand our visitors. Today’s millennials, we are working to figure out, what draws them to the fair, what they want to see, and they need to be coming back more than once. What tye of experience they expect and will enjoy. We will be looking closely at entertainment and exhibits.
CW: Many economic reports indicate that the economy is on an upswing. Is that being felt in North Carolina? Is it being felt by the agricultural industry that fairs are so dependent upon?
KY: North Carolina is enjoying the economy upswing. Job creation announcements seem to be in the news almost every day. The agricultural industry has not enjoyed as much of an upswing due to low commodity prices, but farmers are very good at adjusting to markets and diversifying to be successful even in difficult times. The support our Fair receives from the agricultural industry is strong and consistent.
CW: What is the status of government support for the North Carolina State Fair?
KY: The N.C. State Fair is self-supporting. We are a state government entity, but we receive no state appropriation. We did receive a capital improvement appropriation two years ago to replace the roof on the historic Dorton Arena. That was the first appropriated funding in many years.
CW: What improvements to the fairgrounds will you be implementing?
KY: Our improvements over the next few years will be largely driven by big changes occurring adjacent to the Fairgrounds. Before the 2018 Fair, a pedestrian tunnel will be completed that connects the Fairgrounds to the adjacent football stadium where much of our parking is located. Also, likely before the 2018 Fair, a privately owned tract of land adjacent to the Fairgrounds that is used for parking will be sold and developed. We have been developing remote parking in preparation for this. Both of these significant impacts are on the north side of our Fairgrounds, and as a result we are considering what the entirety of our north side may look like in the future.
CW: Are there non-fair areas of the fairgrounds that you will be changing or improving with the aim of benefitting the year-round viability of the fairgrounds?
KY: We enjoy a very strong year-round program with approximately 500 annual events. We will continue to promote the fairgrounds as the best place to host events, and as a place to look for entertainment year round.
CW: A few years ago, North Carolina State Fair phased out national headline entertainment. Will this policy continue in 2018 and if yes, what entertainment or other attractions will be added or expanded in order to ensure attendance levels are maintained?
KY: Our arena can seat only 5500 for a concert, which makes the finances difficult for a big name touring acts. We changed our musical entertainment to a homegrown format in 2015. Only musicians with NC ties perform on all of our stages during the Fair. This has been successful for us, but we realize we are one of few states who can successfully transition to this format. The response from fairgoers has been largely positive. There are acts performing that visitors recognize, but the cost to provide this entertainment is significantly less.
CW: The North Carolina Fair seemed have a real turnaround a few years ago, what was the milestone or watershed decision that paved the way for the future and how will you build on or augment that direction?
KY: I don’t believe there is a defining moment. The staff that was here before I arrived have worked hard to get our Fair to the level it currently stands. I do hope to build on that by appealing to the changing demographics of our state, including the many newcomers to North Carolina.
CW: What are your expectations for this year’s fair? Do you have enough lead time to have any influence or is this year more of an observational year?
KY: There is certainly no opportunity for an observational year, nor would I want an observational year. I have history with the Fair, and have been involved in the decisions since my first day here. The buck stops here. The Fair has many people that know exactly what to do to put on a great event. They need a leader to support them in their efforts. Our Fair is always evolving and improving. I would also say that every year is an observational year because each year we look for ways to improve the following year, or future years.
CW: As far as the manager is concerned, what decisions and initiatives cannot be made until the months or weeks immediately preceding the fair?
KY: Major decisions certainly come months prior to the Fair. I don’t think we plan to have any last minute decisions, but we will be prepared to make those that come. With an event this size, there will be many last-minute adjustments no matter how thorough our planning.