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Fair Board CEO embraces challenges of job

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Preparations in full swing for Kentucky State Fair next month

By Ben Sheroan

A lot is going on at the Kentucky Exhibition Center these days. Kentucky Kingdom is being rebuilt, Cardinal Stadium is scheduled to come down and the State Fair Board’s namesake event, the Kentucky State Fair, opens in only 27 days.

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At the center of the activity is an experienced convention and event organizer who worked on the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah and left his job in Las Vegas to become the board’s president and chief executive officer in January. Clifford “Rip” Rippetoe also is a farm boy raised in western Oklahoma who pledges to retain the fair’s homage to agriculture while appealing to an increasingly urban audience.

Rippetoe stepped away from his Louisville offices Tuesday night to outline opportunities and challenges he’s encountered in his new job during a speech to the Elizabethtown Lions Club.

Citing a recent article that explained 80 percent of the world population lives in urban settings, Rippetoe said the fair’s original objective of promoting agriculture is more important than ever. He was raised on a multi-faceted farm and has roots in FFA and 4-H programs. But he understands most young people today don’t understand the link between farms and the nation’s food supply.

“We need to stand up and say agriculture is important and we celebrate that,” Rippetoe said.

In addition to the exposition center off Interstate 65 near the airport, the State Fair Board also operates the Kentucky International Convention Center in downtown Louisville. Rippetoe says he’s in “the experience business” and is involved in staging more than 200 trade shows, 35 to 40 conventions and other public events besides the fair and the board’s two other signature events, the North American International Livestock Expo and the National Farm Machinery Show.

“We are an economic engine for Kentucky,” he said.

Rippetoe brings a new outlook and an enthusiasm for the tasks ahead that has been positive, according to a long-time member of the Fair Board.

“He’s a good leader,” said Jane Cave of Glendale, who is serving her 21st year on the board. “He has foresight and energy and he’s a good guy that we’ve found.”

He described these tasks ahead to the Lions Club members meeting at the First Federal Gallery at the Historic State Theater.

A private developer’s work to reopen the Kentucky Kingdom theme park next year “allows us to show some vibrancy in that part of the parking lot.”

He said inspections of the concrete grandstand at Cardinal Stadium turned up problems that would cost millions to repair. It was decided that the 1956 structure did not justify that type of investment. Final decisions about how to use that part of the property are awaiting a detailed master plan study outlining building priorities for the next three to 10 years, Rippetoe said.

The Fair Board is revisiting the idea of having a hotel on the property. Rippetoe said he could offer no details because negotiations are in a preliminary phase and rest in the state procurement office.

He said this year’s fair will continue its free concert series which includes appearances by the Oak Ridge Boys, Montgomery Gentry and Casting Crowns. Other major attractions during the fair, which runs Aug. 15-25, are the midway, the world championship horse show, concerts by Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Carly Rae Jepson plus comedian Jeff Dunham and appearances by the cast of Duck Dynasty.

He also hopes to gain approval from the board this week for additional parking options during the fair’s two weekends to better accommodate visitors.

“We need to look at it through our customers’ eyes and work to improve that experience,” he said.

Ben Sheroan can be reached at (270) 505-1764 or bsheroan@thenewsenterprise.com.