When Bob Batista was 12 years old, living in Great Falls, Mont., somebody asked him if he wanted to sell horse racing programs at the fair. He sold them for a quarter and kept a nickel. He never looked back. From maintenance crews to operations to fair management, Batista has worked at or managed fairs in Great Falls and Billings, Mont.; Vallejo, Calif.; and Boise. Eleven years ago, Batista took over as director of the Western Idaho Fair, and to date, he's the longest running fair manager.
The fair dates back to 1897 and has survived a century of change: It has witnessed quite a bit of history as well, including the first ferris wheel West of the Mississippi (at the turn of the 20th century), Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, a plane from the Wright Brothers and a visit from Charles Lindbergh.
Since the mid 1980s, the fair has been independent of any taxpayer monies. Dubbed an "enterprise fund," it is now entirely self-funded, including salaries and capital improvements.
How many folks are working here when the fair is going full tilt?
I'd have to say probably 600 people.
What's the budget for the fair?
It's about $3 million dollars for the 10 days.
As you get closer to opening day (Friday, Aug. 20), what's on your to-do list?
I've got my hands in just about every little thing at this point. By now, we're past the "where do you put stuff" stage. Now, we're talking about how we enhance things.
Give us an example of that.
When I first came here, nobody picked up trash on the grounds. They just emptied the trash barrels. That was unacceptable. Our crews cleaned bathrooms every two hours. That was unacceptable. We used to tell people where to park. Now, we've added trams to help bring them from their cars to the gate. When I first came here, I would hear, "It's kind of dirty, and it's the same old stuff." So first, we got the basics down: make certain that it's well-lit, safe and clean. And then we tried to enhance the inside elements. There's not an act here that stays longer than two years. We're always aiming to bring in something fresh.
How do you determine what you want to change or add/subtract?
A lot of it comes from my 11 years here. But we have a real good team. For instance, we have someone who helps us with commercial vendors. Six or seven years ago, we had a plethora of spa dealers, and people told us, "I really didn't want to come to a spa fair." So, we try and choose vendors/products that the public tells us they want to keep, and we're always looking for something new.
How do you manage food vendors?
They pay a reservation fee to hold a spot. And then they pay 20 percent of their daily sales.
How do you determine who stays and who goes?
The public tells us based on their sales. But we also critique appearance, customer service, and overall satisfaction.
Do you have a favorite fair-food item?
It's got to be the corn dog.
Tell us about food safety standards.
Inspectors from Central District Health are coming periodically through the day doing random inspections. They're double-checking preparations, temperatures and cleanliness.
How about games of chance?
The carnival operators run the show with our input. Various staff members are always checking them out. Plus, sheriff's deputies are always walking the grounds, making sure that the games are what they're supposed to be.
If the temperatures hit triple digits, what are your plans to keep things cool?
We have tented areas to sit and eat. This year, we've expanded one of our larger tents. We have plenty of shady trees with seats nearby. All of our bleachers for the shows have canopies over them.
Do you still have a bit of "kid" in you?
After as many years as I've been doing this, it really becomes a business, but some days are easier than others. Especially when I see the sparkle in a kid's eyes, with cotton candy all around their smile, and they truly love coming out here. You know, lately I've been watching how stressed people have become. They really need a place to go where they can unwind. People need to get away from their TVs and Blackberrys and they need to come and interact and be social with one another. And it really is all about the kids. To some, it's a fairy-tale land, and everything is so exciting. I just know they're thinking, "I can't wait till the fair comes back next year." It's really all about creating the next generation of fair goers.