Jan. 31 marks the long-rumored end of Dan O’Hara’s tumultuous reign as director of the New York State Fair. In Fair parlance, O’Hara’s tenure as director was a roller coaster. While the passion felt by locals for the annual two-week blowout puts any administrator on the hot seat, making every decision, every change, anything that takes the Fair in a different direction questioned, second-guessed and criticized to death, O’Hara garnered more headlines and public comment than any director in memory.
O’Hara has the distinction of having served under three governors, from Eliot Spitzer, who appointed him in 2007, to David Paterson, who inherited the job when Spitzer self-destructed the following year, to Andrew Cuomo, who succeeded Paterson in 2011. While O’Hara was criticized in Syracuse media and in many letters to the editor for his autocratic rule, it was never disclosed how many decisions were his own and how many came from above, a legitimate question when you talk about such iron-fisted execs as Spitzer and Cuomo.
Although his predecessors weren’t always beloved by those they supervised, criticism and anger toward the former Baldwinsville mayor was more public, especially after he prompted the departure of long-term Fair administrators such as business manager Rich Guanciale, musical director Len Colella and especially marketing director Joe LaGuardia, all of whom had been respected and valued for their work by previous administrations.
It’s likely, however, that O’Hara’s legacy will outlive the controversy that surrounded his uncompromising approach to guiding the Fair, though his legacy could be affected by the findings of currently ongoing investigations, including one by the state inspector general’s office. While some celebrate the end of his time at the Fair helm, there’s no denying that some real positives came out of his management, especially when it came to infrastructure improvements.
Some of those were highly visible, including the spectacular redesign and renovation of the International Pavilion and construction of brick-paved patios flanking Chevy Court, which added eating and viewing space while beautifying the area. The south wing of the Center of Progress Building was nicely redone, the Agriculture Museum got a technology boost and progress continued on Restaurant Row, where deteriorating stands were rebuilt, extending a process started under former director Peter Cappuccilli Jr. The Times Square tower became a new landmark, although one with unfulfilled potential as it doesn’t have a practical use beyond holding up a clock and some advertising billboards, and serving as a place for Troopers to hang out.
Less noticeable, but still important changes contributed to safety, efficiency and resource-saving, with several new roofs, upgraded electrical service, solar-powered streetlamps and more emphasis on recycling and conservation. These changes show the kind of forward thinking needed to move the aging Fairgrounds into the 21st century.
Not every change is a good idea, though, and some moves instituted under O’Hara were not nearly as welcome or successful as those mentioned above. One of the earliest controversies came when the popular New York state wineries tent was banished from its longstanding location in the colonnade area and moved to a spot outside the Coliseum. Fairgoers, who weren’t consulted before the move, had plenty to say afterward as it seemed ill-conceived, and the reason given, that the tent was often too crowded, never made a lot of sense. Eventually the wineries found a new home behind the Horticulture Building that seems like a good compromise. And vinophiles also got relief from the nonsensical rule that they could only quaff their slushies in the vicinity of the wine tent.
Another early stumble for O’Hara came with the decision to contract with promotions giant Live Nation to book entertainment at the Grandstand and Chevy Court. That job had long been performed by LaGuardia, who had announced his retirement in 2007, although more recent evidence says he was actually fired by O’Hara. In any event, the high-priced Live Nation contract was signed without a bidding process and the results were less than terrific while the whole deal sounded shady and may have contributed to the Fair finding itself weakened financially, leading to its booking of a paltry five Grandstand shows in 2012.
While O’Hara clearly deserves credit for some of his achievements, he was less than stellar when it came to image and public relations and his tenure was marked by occasional flare-ups and controversies. Fairgoers, especially local folks who attend religiously, have strong allegiances and opinions, and when they feel that their Fair administrators aren’t responsive to their feelings it makes them hotter than an August afternoon on the midway.
Agriculture Commissioner Darrel Aubertine’s Jan. 15 press release announcing the appointment of Thomas Ryan as Fair director also stated that former Syracuse Mayor Tom Young, who served as Fair director from 1975 to 1985, will advise Ryan, who comes in without any fair experience. It also pointedly mentions the role of the State Fair advisory board taking a major role in shaping its future, which sounds promising.
Ryan and Young would also be wise to solicit and seriously
consider input from devoted fair fans and the public at large, because,
as Dan O’Hara can tell them, any director can benefit from fairgoer
loyalty and positive public sentiment.