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Family Man Dan

fair director
Michael Davis Photo

For Dan O’Hara, it’s difficult to remember a time when the New York State Fair wasn’t an important part of his life. He has fond memories of playing the games of chance as a child, working there as a teenager, and enjoying some behind-the-scenes access when his brother Joe held the reins as director in the mid-1980s.

And now, he’s the boss. O’Hara, a native Central New Yorker who served as Baldwinsville mayor from 1995 to 2001, was appointed fair director in 2007, and he didn’t exactly tiptoe into the role. He banned the sale of tobacco, caused a stir by requesting the removal of an award-winning photograph from the photography display, and made shirts and shoes a requirement for entry.This year brings a relocation of the wine court, and restrictions on smoking within the Mohegan Sun Grandstand.

O’Hara sees the changes simply as evidence of the fair’s natural progression as a venue promoting the best of New York state—a progression that he says started with previous fair administrators. “There is a wonderful history here and my real focus this year was to build on past administrative successes.”

“Change is difficult,” he adds. “There is always going to be some criticism. As far as the tobacco sales, we made a decision and I think it was a good decision.”

O’Hara wants to encourage families from all over the state to come and make their own memories. He and wife Monique have three children: Bonnie, 23, Dan, 21, and Morgan, 16. Each has voiced an opinion on how to keep the fair fresh (Morgan wanted the Jonas Brothers to play the Grandstand this year), but O’Hara is more interested in the fact that they are actually learning something every time they go.

“My own kids, they’ll spend two or three days there,” O’Hara says excitedly. “They like to walk through the buildings. I like it because you raise their awareness. They want to learn about what’s great about the New York state regions. My 21- and 23-year-old will go explore, whether it’s up to the Adirondacks, or the Finger Lakes region, based on what they see at the fair.”

But O’Hara also hopes that families notice the many things about the fair that have not changed but may be underappreciated. “I think a misconception about the fair is that to bring the family, there is the potential to spend a lot of money,” O’Hara says. “But one of the issues we really look at is affordability. The advance-sale tickets are a great deal and are widely available. Children 12 and under get in free. Then there are the ride specials.” (For a list of ticket locations and discount coupons, visit www.nysfair.org.)

Frederick Pierce, director of public relations for the fair, adds that the fair’s numerous entertainment venues offer a variety of family-friendly options—all included in the price of admission. The shows at Chevrolet Court are always popular, and the Little Caesars Talent Showcase Youth Stage features performances from the area’s young performers.

Other options include a high wire act, a “bigger and better” Coronas Hollywood Circus, pig racing, Freddy Fusion the Science Magician, and the popular Commerford Petting Zoo and nightly parades.

Pierce says he is particularly enthusiastic about a new feature at this year’s fair: the Paragon Jousting and Adventure Theater. “Kids will actually get to see knights re-enact jousting competitions,” he says.

In addition to all the entertainment, shopping and … let’s admit it … the food, O’Hara is eager to showcase the state’s considerable horticultural and agricultural resources. An expanded Pride of New York exhibit will encourage fairgoers to learn more about local food, and a large display on the state’s 11 regions will greet visitors just inside the main gate.

This year’s fair will also spotlight emerging and existing businesses, and eco-friendly research and initiatives. In his message posted on the fair’s Web site, Gov. David Patterson applauds the decision to showcase these issues.

The key to moving forward with the fair, and maintaining its role in the state economy, O’Hara says, is teamwork. Coming to the fair from a government position, O’Hara was experienced in the art of delegation and supporting the initiative of his co-workers. At the fair, O’Hara has found much to admire as well.

“Working with the fair staff is one of the things I absolutely enjoy (about my job),” O’Hara says. “There is a great deal of institutional knowledge. When I arrived, there was no pretense. We respect each other, and their dedication is fabulous. They all have a very positive attitude about the fair.”

And, luckily for Central New York families, O’Hara’s love for the annual end-of-summer showcase is as strong as ever. “One of my joys as director is that I get to see kids win a game and get that big prize,” he says. “I get to see people enjoying our wonderful New York state products. The fair has always been that venue where kids can come with their parents or grandparents, and everyone will have a good time.”

When asked if there is anything he absolutely HAS to do this summer at the fair, O’Hara had a ready response.
“Oh, I absolutely have to have a cup of chocolate milk and a baked potato (still a bargain at 25 cents and $1, respectively)!”

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