DOUGLAS — On a warm summer day, a husband and wife team were working their smoothie booth at the Santa Cruz County fair in California. She was pregnant but wasn’t worried as her due date wasn’t for another six weeks or so.
Going about her business, she ate two cinnamon rolls, but then started not feeing that well. So she sat down for a little break.
The jabs of pain didn’t stop. That could only mean one thing. She was going into labor.
The fair manager came to the rescue, driving her to the hospital in Santa Cruz in the nick of time.
A little girl named Courtny was born 23 years ago and spent her first couple weeks at fairs, sleeping happily in a Chiquita banana box.
“They still call me Chiquita,” new Wyoming State Fair Manager Courtny Conkle said. “My first day on this earth was spent at a fair. It’s meant to be.”
Fairs became her life’s ambition.
While she doesn’t officially start her job in Douglas until Sept. 23, she was on hand last week to see firsthand her tasks ahead and to listen, she said, to fairgoers and others about what they believe is wrong and right about the fair. She also has a list of problem areas she intends to handle beginning on day one – though she is keeping the full list to herself for now.
Fairs, she said with pride, are in her blood. She has a passion for them, and that enthusiasm is infectious as the energetic, blonde haired, blue eyed dynamo talks quickly about the life that brought her to this job . . . and to a desire to make fairs across the country better.
After working at her parents’ food booths growing up, by the time she was 15 she was already managing her own fair route. She managed a staff of around 150 and ran all of the operations for her route. That meant contract negotiations, managing staff and all other duties including operations, marketing and inventory.
By the time she turned 16, she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life.
Then, almost overnight, all of the subsidies that the numerous fairs in California received from the government, were cut off.
“For me, that was my family’s livelihood, that was our house payment, my dance lessons and any other expense a family has,” she recalled last week while making her first visit to a Wyoming State Fair. “I listened to all of these people saying there weren’t going to be any fairs any more.”
She saw these fairs run in the red without the subsidies, but also saw the potential in all of the buildings and properties that the fairgrounds had. Why couldn’t the various fairs use the buildings to make money and get back in the black? Courtny knew what she wanted to do.
She wanted to be a fair manager and to solve those issues.
“I see the need in the fair industry for young professionals, for the next generation of strong management, and I know that I can help,” she said while sitting in the WSF board room Thursday, as the fair events whirled around the fairgrounds. “I know that I can help us build a strong future as an entire industry.”
With the help from her parents, she made a plan.
During her first year of college in Sonoma County, she was contacted by the Sonoma County Fair manager out of the blue.
“I was working consulting, doing internships, I was working admissions at large fairs,” Courtny recalled. “She said we have an availability for a position and I’m not sure you would want it, but it’s the exhibit representative position.”
Courtny jumped at the opportunity. It meant managing livestock, facilities and exhibits.
“I said, ‘Absolutely, I’ll do it.’ I started the next week.”
The fact that she was still in college didn’t dissuade her. Courtny received five degrees in four years and admits that some of those years were a blur. She worked all day and weekends if there were events, so classes and studying were done in the evenings.
Hard work and challenges are two things that drive Courtny to do what she loves.
Her current position is manager at the Lake County Fair in Lakeport, California. Even though Lake County is the poorest county in the state, the fair grew tremendously under Courtny’s leadership.
“I belong to the Western County Fair Association and each year they have a Merrill Award,” she said. “It’s like the academy award of fairs.”
Lake County Fair had never even been nominated.
That was before Courtny.
“Last year, Lake County Fair received more than 100 nominations, and we took home the award,” she smiled broadly, noting it was for work during her third year.
She sees great opportunity for change and growth for the Wyoming State Fair, and she believes that the fairgrounds are part of the community and should be used year round for fun, exciting and different events.
She admitted she applied for the WSF job more as a learning experience, never expecting to be hired. After all, she’s 23 years old and doesn’t fit the mold of former WSF directors.
When the new WSF Board offered the job, she was surprised to say the least.
“I went into the interview knowing that this would be a great learning experience,” she said. “I’ve done my research and know that there has never been a female fair manager.”
She hoped her experience and her commitment to fairs would make her stand out.
“I see a lot of potential to make the state fair great,” she said. “I know I’m not the typical fair manager, but I bring a lot of ideas and my love for fairs with me.”
On Sept. 23, Courtny will bring her fiance and two dogs with her to Douglas.
“We’re really excited to come to Wyoming,” she said. “This is the heart of agriculture.”
She is excited to do some school outreach to both county school districts, FFA chapters and 4-H clubs.
“It’ll be nice to get out of some of the politics you have in California and get back to the basics of fairs,” she said. “The community, entertainment, carnival, animals, exhibits and vendors are what make up the fair.
“I’m excited to see what we can do.”