As the Operations and Maintenance Supervisor for the California Mid-State Fairgrounds, Chico Cerda and his crew have their hands full every week of the year. As summer sets in, the ramp up to 12 days of fun is another level for the CMSF 2018 Employee of the Year.
For 12 years, Cerda has been leading the operations and maintenance of the 42-acre complex, and the 2019 edition “Let’s Have S’More Fun” is another chapter in the book.
“The CEO Vivian Robertson lost her maintenance guy and she asked me,” Cerda said. “I said I would try it. That was 2007, and I’m still here.”
From keeping the “cleanest, best-smelling bathrooms of any fair in the state,” to changing out arena chairs for tables, to cleaning up night after night to welcome the first attendees of the day with clean grounds, the real stars of the fair are not on stage. They are behind the scenes, quietly sweeping through empty halls, stalls, and arenas. They are also there 365 days of the year.
“They give me the plans and we make it work,” Cerda said. “I got people who do it every year. They are good workers and it all gels. I just oversee it, and if they need help, I jump in. Last year, for instance, I was on the loader moving trash from 2:30 to 5:30 in the morning, or it wouldn’t have gotten done and we would not have been ready.”
During the course of a year, the grounds are used for a wide variety of events or camping that keep about 15 full time employees busy.
“We stay pretty busy,” Cerda said. “It’s a little over 42 acres, and we use all of it.”
From rodeo events, motorcross, the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest, and Rotary Winemakers Cookoff, there is not a dull moment.
“The biggest one is the AIDS/LifeCycle bike ride [in June],” Cerda said. “We had 3,500 people here on Tuesday morning, and Wednesday morning they are gone by 10 a.m. You wouldn’t even know they were here.”
Open season is over now at the Paso Robles Event Center, and the grounds are bustling with action to get ready for 12 Days of Fun. That is “go time” for Chico and his regular crew of 15.
“Pre-fair, we ramp up to about 45, then at fair time we have about 115 that I’m responsible for full time,” Cerda said. “Then my regular full time staff become supervisors. Our hours increase dramatically — we work about 14 hour days … if nothing goes wrong.”
Lots can go wrong, but with 12 years under his belt, the team manages to keep it running. Then Garth Brooks plays a couple shows on one night and it is all-hands-on-deck.
“It was going to be challenging, just for one show,” Cerda said, “and then they added the second show … more challenging.”
To get the arena ready between the first and second show, more than half of Cerda’s entire crew was on the clock.
“I had a team of 60 maintenance people ready to go when the first show was over,” Cerda said, “and they gave us a 30-minute window to get the whole arena cleaned. Within 15 minutes into our time, they were asking me if we were done.”
FUN FACT: Attendees at the Garth Brooks show were not served popcorn because of the mess it would have made for the maintenance cleanup crew between shows.
From scheduled challenges to unscheduled complications, maintenance works at all times to keep 12 days of fun rolling.
“Everything is quiet at 9:30 a.m., then all of a sudden the bathrooms all back up,” Cerda said. “A vendor was vacuuming up bird seed and dog hair and flushing it down the toilet. It caught on a branch going out the main line.”
Changes come each year, and Cerda has seen the grounds change for the better.
“We’ve improved, a lot of improvements to the infrastructure,” Cerda said. “Water and sewer lines, and a 74-space RV full hookup that we are pretty much done with. That is huge. Before that, we had vehicles parking all over the fairgrounds hooking up to water hoses. Now we have full sewer hookups — an RV park. I’m really proud of that.”
Cerda grew up on a dairy farm, which might explain why his favorite part of the fair is when the animals show up.
“My kids always showed animals,” Cerda said. “I grew up in Torrence and was used to the Pomona fair — they had a big fair, lots of animals. I got here in 1978 when there was 6,000 people here, and I thought [CMSF] was a big little Pomona fair.”
From enjoying shows as a guest of the fair, to a dozen years of maintaining the grounds for the enjoyment of millions of attendees, Cerda has a lot of memories to draw from. Some are better than others, but some memories are a little of good and bad.
“It is not a good memory, but it was good the way it worked out,” Cerda said. “Saturday night [before opening day 2015] I went home, and all the flowers were popping, the asphalt was painted — we looked like Disneyland, we were ready to go.”
So was the weather.
“It started raining,” Cerda said, “and we got three inches of rain overnight. At 4 a.m. it was thunder and lightening, and I didn’t have a good feeling. I called the CEO at the time, Vivian Robertson, and told her I was going in.”
Cerda found a crisis.
“Everything was flooded,” Cerda said. “Mud had come down from the city into the fairgrounds, and we had three feet of water by the highway. We just went to work. One of the local contractors came in with his equipment and we hauled off 18 semi loads of mud off the grounds to the dump.”
Rain or shine, flood or mud, the fair must go on, and Cerda leads the crew responsible for making sure it is does.
“The best memory was that on Sunday, we were ready to go,” Cerda said.
Chico Cerda and his team are hard to spot, so if you see them at the fair this year, give them a big thank you for keeping it running right for you.