State fair CEO dishes on new name, favorite fried food

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Opening day

Here are some things not to miss when the Washington State Fair opens Friday:

• Rodeo breakfast: Pancakes, eggs, sausage and more will be served before the parade from 8-10 a.m. at the Pioneer Park Pavilion.

• Parade and cattle drive: 10 a.m. in downtown Puyallup.

• Food Drive: Free fair admission with a nonperishable food donation 9 a.m.-noon. Donations go to the Puyallup Food Bank.

The fair runs Sept. 6-22. For more information or to purchase advance tickets, visit thefair.com.

Kent Hojem is a jokester with a passion for fairs — especially his own in Puyallup.

Hojem and his wife are longtime Grangers. He used to participate in 4-H and qualified a dairy cow in the state competition at the Puyallup Fair many years ago. Today, his grandchildren also participate in 4-H.

In 1996, Hojem left the Thurston County Fair to work as an assistant manager at what was then the Puyallup Fair. He has been CEO since 2005.

Hojem took a break from final fair preparations last week to talk about life behind the grandstand of the newly rebranded Washington State Fair.

During the 17-day run, how many times do you go to the fair for fun?

I have friends that visit from various places around the state. And I usually take a little bit of time when they visit to see the fair through their eyes. I bet it is more than five or six times. I’m always interrupted (with fair business), too.

What is your favorite thing about the fair every year?

It’s the diversity. Nowhere else is there such a diverse collection of things. This is the most tactile entertainment venue. It engages all the senses. It’s all in a relatively small area. What could be better?

I’m sure many people are wondering: What exactly does a fair CEO do year-round?

Planning for the next year’s fair actually starts before this year’s fair begins. When you start to talk about capital projects (and strategic planning), that’s a couple years out. Also, we believe in a strong community presence, so I try to be involved as best I can in the local area. The facility has become such a year-round venue, too. The place operates 365 days out of the year. Rarely is there a weekend there isn’t something going on.

How are preparations for this year’s fair different from years past in light of the name change to the Washington State Fair?

It doesn’t do justice just to refer to a name change, although that part has been a challenge in and of itself. To change your name, that requires you to think a little bit deeper about what our responsibilities have evolved into. We aren’t going to accomplish everything we want to accomplish in one year. This is going to require years of careful thought, reaching out, providing reasons for people from points north, south, east, and west to come here. It made us think about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and should we continue to do it.

What would you say to someone who opposes the name change?

It’s important to remember this is still the same wonderful fair that it always was. We are looking at enhancing the experience, not limiting the experience, and making it welcoming to everyone in the state. In no way are we turning our backs on our wonderful relationship with Puyallup and the rest of the valley here.

Now for the hard-hitting stuff: Favorite ride?

I have two. My traditional favorite is the wooden coaster. My modern favorite is the Extreme Scream. The thrill of being shot up 180 feet in the air, and then hauled back up to the top and shot down, that’s fun. The other part of it is those few seconds you spend at the top, what a beautiful view. And it doesn’t matter which of the four sides you’re on.

Which fair food is your guilty pleasure?

Unfortunately, I have several. And I can’t name ’em all cause I’m a little bit of an aficionado on fair foods. I go to the Totally Fried booth every year. Usually I try the latest weird thing. I’m a really good sport about it.

What are you looking forward to this year specifically?

It’s the same every year — I look forward to opening the gates. Nothing beats the opening day of the fair — those first couple of hours, the gates are free, the parade is ending. If you don’t like that, you’re in the wrong business.