Iowa State Fair starts next Thursday, with new CEO Parsons

DES MOINES — The Iowa State Fair begins one week from today, with a new manager who’s only the 13th person in the fair’s 169 year history to serve in that role.

Jeremy Parsons, who took over as Iowa State Fair CEO and manager in March, has the photos of two former state fair managers hanging on the wall in his office. J.C. Simpson is one of them. Simpson was State Fair manager from 1901 to 1911. He oversaw construction of major facilities that still stand today.

“When you look at the fairgrounds, the Swine Barn, Livestock Pavillion, Ag Building, Administration Building, Varied Industries Building and the first phase of the Grandstand were all in his 10 years,” Parson told Radio Iowa, “so I think about him and what he’d think of today’s fair for sure.”

Most of the 2023 entertainment and events had been announced well before Parson started as Iowa State Fair manager nearly five months ago, so Parson said he hasn’t been tinkering. “I tell people my goal for this year’s fair is not to screw it up,” Parsons said, with a laugh. “When you’re leading one of Iowa’s iconic institutions, you really don’t want to screw it up, but the staff here is tremendous — a seasoned staff.”

There are 70 full-time employees year round and another 80 work from May through October on what Parsons describes as a “reimagined” fairgrounds that hosts events all year long. “A lot of new facilities,” he said. “A lot of renovated facilities.”

During the fair’s 11 day run, however, the staff size swells to 1600, as hundreds of thousands of visitors come through the fairgates. Parsons said his goal as fair manager is to serve those who return for state fair traditions and those who want to see something new. “How do we make sure we represent all of Iowa?” Parsons asked. “How do we make sure that we have offerings here that really appeal to people that have never been to the Iowa State Fair here in our own state and those who come every year, to entice them to come back?”
Parsons, who is 46, estimates his first trip to the State Fair was in 1977. “I was born in June, so I was probably here in August,” Parson said, laughing. “I was probably one of those two month old Iowa State Fairgoers, for sure. Lots of memories in the campgrounds with my grandparents and parents. Lots of great memories here at the fair.”

Parsons got a bit of tutoring for his current job from long-time Iowa State Fair manager Marion Lucas, who retired in 2001. Parsons, who grew up in Leon, wrote the state fair’s manager a letter as part of an elementary school assignment. Lucas invited Parsons to a tour of the fairgrounds during the next state fair and several fairs after that. When Parsons was 17, Lucas suggested Parsons apply to be a seasonal state fair employee.

“I literally was here 12 summers between high school college and then I taught school right out of college,” Parsons said.

But Parsons soon got into the fair business full time, leading fundraising for the Missouri State Fair. He was CEO of the Clay County Fair when he was tapped to lead the Iowa State Fair.

“One of the things I bring with me from 12 years at the Clay County Fair in Spencer is I intentionally spent part of my day really just wandering around the fair, like a fairgoer,” Parsons said. “That’s really the only way you can really see the product from that perspective.”

Parsons gave Radio Iowa a golf cart tour of the fairgrounds this week. First stop was at a newer venue on the northwest side of the fairgrounds that hosts State Fair events that create some noise. “Tractor pulls, demo derbies, ATV events,” Parsons said, then pivoted to ideas for future fairs. “Can we add rodeo? It’d be cool every afternoon for something to be going on.”

This week bleachers are being set up at various venues around the fairgrounds. Food and beverage stands are popping up along streets and sidewalks. “It’s kind of fun this time of year,” Parson said. “It kind of grows every day.”

Flags are flying on top of some of the buildings and barns. “Our maintenance guys were telling me the other day there are 120 flag poles on the grounds,” Parsons said, “so it just takes a while to hang all the flags.”

The fairgrounds were listed as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Place in 1987. Many of those flagpoles are on buildings that are more than a century old.