The leader of a Northern California county fair with decades of experience in the industry has been hired as the new chief executive officer of the Santa Maria Fairpark.

Richard Persons, from the Lake County Fair, will replace Dennis Pearson, who retired this spring after 16 years.

The Santa Maria Fairpark is home to the Santa Barbara County Fair in July, Santa Maria Valley Strawberry Festival in April and other events throughout the year. 

Kevin Merrill, fair board president, said he and his fellow directors are looking forward to working with Persons.

“He has been highly involved in the fair industry for many years, and we believe he will bring a fresh outlook to the many activities and projects we have going on at the Santa Maria Fairpark,” Merrill said in a written statement.

The new CEO will begin his job Oct. 1, meaning he will remain in Lakeport for the 2014 fair Aug. 28-31.

His annual salary will be approximately $96,000 plus benefits. He was selected from a field of 18 candidates.

Persons, 49, has nearly three decades of experience working in the California fair industry, and has led the Lake County Fair since 1996. 

“I’m delighted to have the opportunity to lead such a strong team at a highly respected county fairgrounds,” Persons said. “Santa Maria Fairpark has a solid reputation for producing events that are well managed, and I’m looking forward to joining them on Oct. 1.

“The fact that the Santa Maria Fairpark is located on the Central Coast, an area my wife and I have always dreamed of living in, is just icing on the cake.” 

The Santa Maria facility has a larger staff and budget than the Lake County Fair.

“It just seemed like a good career fit for me,” he said.

Persons grew up in Santa Rosa and is familiar the the Central Coast, having earned his degree in agricultural management from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo in 1989.

Before that he served as deputy manager of the Solano County Fair in Vallejo, and owned a small business that provided managerial services to county fairs and other events.

In addition to his work at  the Lake County Fair, Persons has held positions on numerous boards and committees in the California fair industry. He is a member of the California Fairs Alliance board of directors and chairman of the Governmental Relations Task Force.

Persons is a past member of the board of directors of the Western Fairs Association and has served on many committees. 

He also served as the president of the board of directors of the California Fairs Services Authority, a joint-powers authority that provides insurance and risk management services to fairgrounds throughout California.

Persons said the move also presents career advancement for his wife, Terri, also a Cal Poly graduate, who works as a transportation planner. 

“We’re very much looking forward to moving to the Central Coast and getting up to the speed on the Santa Maria Fairpark,” he added.

Under Pearson’s leadership, the facility gained a new administration building, which opened in 2009. 

Since Pearson retired in March, his deputy, Joe Brengle, has served as interim CEO during this year’s Strawberry Festival and County Fair.

The Santa Maria Fairpark — its formal name is the 37th District Agricultural Association, which encompasses northern Santa Barbara County — is led by a nine-member board of directors.

The Fairpark sits on 33 acres and is managed by a full-time staff of eight with an annual budget of $2.5 million. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

A stylized hawk's head on a red background

Janene Scully | Noozhawk North County Editor

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at