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Thursday, February 22, 2024
Feb. 22, 2024

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Clark County Fair manager John Morrison gets ready to step down

By , Columbian staff writer
9 Photos
John Morrison, CEO of the Clark County Fair for the past decade, will step down after this year’s event.
John Morrison, CEO of the Clark County Fair for the past decade, will step down after this year’s event. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

This is the last year you’ll find Clark County Fair Manager John Morrison literally spending 24-7 at the fairgrounds. He used to sleep in his office, he said, but the building’s motion-controlled lights drove him a little nuts — always snapping on when he rolled over on his couch. Once, he added, he accidentally startled some other overnight fair residents who were using the office restroom. After that, he said, he started parking his RV on the grounds and sleeping there.

“For about 15 or 16 days, I literally don’t leave the grounds,” Morrison said — from a few days before free pancakes to a few days after the last Monster Truck stops rumbling.

But after this 150th anniversary year, Morrison will step down as fair manager. At 75 he’s half the age of the event, he chuckled, and he’s been manager since 2009, chairman of the Clark County Fair Association board for six years before that, and a ubiquitous volunteer for a whole decade before that.

Stepping away won’t be easy, Morrison said. “You can’t devote that many years to something without being deeply invested,” he said. “But it feels like it’s time.”

New fair manager Tennessee native

Now working alongside outgoing fair manager and events-center CEO John Morrison is the incoming leader of the scene, Mickey Webb.

Webb grew up in Tennessee, the land of “tobacco and beef cattle,” he said, and studied hotel and restaurant management at the University of Tennessee. After that he worked in event and conference management on the East Coast and then back in his native state — where working at an agricultural exposition center whetted his appetite for the outdoorsy, communal style of county fairs, he said. 

In August 2014 he came west and worked as the event center and fair director for Kittitas County (Ellensburg) and then Grant County (Moses Lake). But he was “really looking for a west-side location” with some greenery and even a bit of rain, he said.

“I like hiking, I like the mountains, I even like the rain,” he said, because it all reminds him of Tennessee. (But he doesn’t mind skipping Tennessee’s 95 percent humidity in summertime.)

He had known John Morrison for a few years, he said, and jumped at the chance to take on his biggest challenge yet: an event that draws approximately a quarter-million people every year. That’s a lot bigger than his last challenge, he said.

“Even with all the logistics, it’s one big event where everybody’s having fun,” he said. “I love just seeing all the families, seeing everybody having a good time. It’s a really energetic, fulfilling position to work in. I’ve already met a lot of nice people and I’m looking to the future.”

Webb’s 44th birthday is the last day of the fair, Aug. 12.

— Scott Hewitt

Morrison, a native of western New York and graduate of Cornell University, used to enjoy a different, equally rewarding career in the U.S. Air Force, he said — that’s where he met and married his wife, Mary Ann — and he retired as a colonel after 28 years. Then he and Mary Ann moved to Battle Ground to care for his aging parents.

At age 48, Morrison was a young retiree and needed something more to occupy his time, he said, so he accepted a friend’s invitation to get into beekeeping. When he joined the Clark County Beekeepers, he said, he was almost immediately asked to represent that group on the Clark County Fair Board.

“I didn’t know a beehive from an onion sandwich,” Morrison laughed, but before long he had 14 hives producing a dozen 60-pound buckets of honey. He also learned to carry an EpiPen to counteract allergic reactions to bee stings. Stings happen when you’re a beekeeper, and most beekeepers develop a tolerance, but Morrison said he went the other way: his allergy grew worse, and his doctor eventually told him, “You’re in a hobby that’s going to kill you.”

Morrison finally quit after a bad sting in the throat, he said, but by then he’d embraced volunteerism with the fair board in a big way — going from member to vice chairman and then chairman. Eventually he was invited to step off the board — in order to become its employee as manager of the Clark County Fair (and, eventually, the CEO of the fair’s home, the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds, which hosts many other events all year long). He took the job in 2009.

Meanwhile, Mary Ann Morrison (a former nurse, now a seasonal tax preparer) remains a beekeeper and bee promotor who always hosts the fair’s annual visit by the American Honey Queen — the chief ambassador of the beekeeping industry. The American Honey Queen lives at the Morrisons’ home with Mary Ann for the duration of the fair.

“It’s been rewarding,” Morrison said. “I never thought anything would take the place of the Air Force, but this gets in your blood. It’s hugely important to the community. It’s multi-generational, kids to seniors. You get immediate positive feedback.”

And some negative feedback too, he said. In addition to a regular staff of 11 and a seasonal staff of 350, Morrison manages 2,200 dedicated volunteers, many of whom have been devoted to the fair for about as long as he has, or longer.

“Change does not come easily to some people,” said Morrison, who believes the key to the fair’s success is spanning the distance between the traditional, agricultural roots that stoke memories and the cutting-edge fun that sells lots of tickets — that is, between llamas and laser tag.

If You Go

What: Clark County Fair.

Hours today: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. today

Where: 17402 N.E. Delfel Road.

Admission: Adults, $11.25; seniors 62 and older, $9.25; kids 7-12, $6.25 today for Family Day; kids 6 and younger, free.

Parking and transportation: Parking, $6 per vehicle (cash only); C-Tran shuttle, free from six main transfer stations; $1 discount on full gate admission with bus transfer ticket. Schedules at www.c-tran.com/fair

Carnival: Opens at noon.

ERSFreeGrandstand: Granger Smith, 7 p.m.

Pets: Not permitted, except for service animals or those on exhibit or in competition.

Moreinformation: www.clarkcofair.com

“I didn’t come to the fair to make it profitable, but we did it,” said Morrison, noting that the Clark County Fair has broken attendance records recently, and was named a “Top 10” fair in the United States twice during his tenure.

“If you don’t keep it relevant to today, the kids won’t come out and find the other pieces,” he said. “They have learned an awful lot they never thought they would learn about what agriculture has meant to this state and this county.”

Former Clark County Manager Mark McCauley, now the director of central services for Jefferson County, called The Columbian while driving down here to attend the opening day of Morrison’s final fair, he said. “I asked him for 10 years and he gave me 10 years,” McCauley said. “He is an awesome human being — a unique combination of civility and professionalism. He’s a tremendous professional and an amazing fellow.”