DEL MAR — Tim Fennell, chief executive officer and general manager of the Del Mar
Fairgrounds, was recognized for his 20 years of service during the March 12 board of directors meeting.
The state-owned facility, as well as Fennell’s now-gray hair, currently bear little resemblance to what either looked like when he was hired in 1993, the staff report noted.
When Fennell started, the Del Mar Fair, as it was known at the time, was the 13th largest such event in North America. It is now ranked fourth on the continent and No. 1 in California.
Departments have been created and new events such as the Holiday of Lights and Scream Zone were added. There have been improvements to some buildings, while others have been completely replaced.
Fair sponsorship dollars have grown from less than $50,000 to more than $2.8 million. Overall revenues have gone from $19 million to more than $60 million.
The 340-acre site has received numerous awards for everything from its programs to its recycling efforts.
Director Fred Schenk likened Fennell to a duck swimming smoothly across the top of a pond. The millions of people who come through the gate don’t see your feet paddling like crazy under the water, he said.
Such was the case at the fair during his first year at the helm. Grandstand artist Tanya Tucker was brought in by helicopter because she was an hour late, having been sidetracked by a professional football player she appeared with the previous night on a talk show.
“I’ve learned a lot from you as a manager,” Director David Lizerbram said. “You always stick to your guns and do what you think is right.”
Fennell said he was honored and humbled by the recognition. “It’s been an adventure the last 20 years,” he said, crediting the staff more than himself for the success of the fairgrounds.
“I’m the one who’s always whistling on Monday morning because of this staff,” he said. “It’s easy for me to come to work every day. I’m the lucky guy.”
The fairgrounds is currently home to more than 350 annual events. But Fennell said the most memorable was when the facility served as a shelter for people, horses and other animals during the 2007 wildfires.
Fennell jokingly said he is about halfway through his career at the fairgrounds because there are still several projects on the horizon, including expansion plans, widening the turf track to hopefully attract the Breeders’ Cup and “making sure our people are well taken care of.”
Fennell came under fire a few years ago for allowing managers, supervisors and other exempt employees to cash out leave balances, such as unused vacation pay, totaling almost $525,000.
Most of the cash-outs were made due to financial hardships, Fennell said. “That money belongs to the employees … If they left tomorrow we would have to cash them out.”
The state suggested the employees pay the money back but that never happened and the issue is still unresolved.
As the general manager, Fennell is the one who recognizes 20-year employees. This time, board President Adam Day bestowed the honor.
As part of the recognition, Day read a poem, written by staff members, that described Fennell’s first “company car,” a vehicle no one would want for free, the time he dressed up as Elvis Presley and a rumor Fennell may be getting a fairgrounds tattoo.