SWW Fairgrounds’ New Management Ready to Handle Fair, Garlic Fest and More


After a disappointing 2020, the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds is primed to host the annual Southwest Washington Fair, the Washington State Garlic Festival and a host of other events, thanks in part to the fair’s new management team.

The fair office has hired Parks and Recreation and Events Director Connie Riker and Fair and Events Manager Fionna Velazquez.

The two new positions came about after Lewis County decided to rework the Southwest Washington fair manager position, which had been vacant since the county laid off former manager Tamara Hayes due to revenue losses caused by the pandemic. 

“We’re really focused on moving forward,” said Riker.

She added the current fair organizers have staffer Pat Slusher Jr. to thank for keeping the fairgrounds office afloat during the layoffs and budget cuts the office sustained during the pandemic. 

“The county deciding to move forward and have the fair even when there were some other vacancies here is allowing us to be one of the few fairs in the area that is continuing. And I think, from an attendance perspective, I think it’s going to be a boon for us,” said Riker. “And the fact that they have the power team now putting on the fair, I think it’s going to be great.” 

Neighboring Clark and Thurston counties are among many regional fairs that were canceled for a second year in a row, with officials citing concerns about COVID-19 rates and unknown state regulations. 

But the Southwest Washington Fair’s advisory board assured the public back in early June, around the same time Riker and Velazquez started their new positions, that the Southwest Washington Fair would happen.

 “I think the community was ready to have it again. I think they missed it a lot in 2020,” said Velazquez. 

For Velazquez, the new job was actually a return to work she had been doing before the pandemic. She initially started working in the fair office in 2018 as an intern from Centralia College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in applied management. She was officially hired at the fair office in 2019, but when the pandemic hit in 2020, the county transferred Velazquez over to the Emergency Management department to help with the COVID-19 response. She served as the department’s chief of operations through the height of the pandemic and was eventually offered a full-time position as the county’s emergency coordinator. 

But when the county began talking about planning a fair this year, Velazquez was eager to move back over to the fair office. 

“I was really excited because I think the fair is a wonderful part of the community and I think it’s amazing really how many of the skills overlap. As emergency coordinator, I worked with so many of our community partners and really the fair is the same thing. ... Really it takes thousands of volunteer hours to put on the fair on top of staff,” said Velazquez. 

Riker was working as a travel agent earlier this year when she called the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds to inquire about renting the fairgrounds. She learned the county was without a fair manager and was looking to fill the position. 

“It just seemed like it was a great fit. And as you can imagine, with COVID, tourism from a travel agency perspective has substantially declined. I was at a decision point in my life like ‘okay what am I going to do,’ so I decided to come here,” Riker said. 

Outside of organizing the fair with Velazquez and managing other events at the fairgrounds, Riker is responsible for encouraging tourism and managing county-owned parks and facilities.

“The way that the positions are working, I’m essentially handling the business aspects of the fairgrounds and the fair, strategic planning and budgeting, the directions of where we’re going; and managing the events themselves is something that (Velazquez) is handling,” Riker said. 

The fair, which is scheduled for Aug. 17-22, is coming together, with organizers working to finalize contracts with entertainment, recruit volunteers and register exhibitors. 

“People are excited to be back,” said Velazquez. “We have thousands of hours that go into the fair. Every department has a superintendent. They are preparing their buildings, preparing their list, (and) exhibitors can enter now online. Things are falling into place.” 

While the event won’t be subject to any state-mandated COVID-19 restrictions, Riker said they’re incorporating precautions like hand washing and antibacterial stations into their planning to help keep attendees safe. 

“We want to have a safe fair without necessarily having an overwhelming number of restrictions,” said Riker. 

While some counties that canceled their fairs this year, like Thurston County, are holding closed fairs to allow 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) participants to showcase their projects, Riker and Velazquez anticipate some of the exhibitors will take their entries over to Lewis County for the chance to compete at the state level. 

Exhibitors can register online at southwestwashingtonfair.org/exhibits/entries. 

Applications For Little Miss Friendly, the “official hostess and living logo” of the fair, are also open. Girls aged 8-10 can apply online at southwestwashingtonfair.org/events/little-miss-friendly.

Sign ups for the “Stars of Tomorrow” talent show are open as well. People can enter online at southwestwashingtonfair.org/events/contests.

Beyond the fair, Riker and Velazquez are looking forward to a packed schedule of events — starting the weekend immediately after the fair with the Washington State Garlic Festival on Aug. 27-29.

“It’s held the weekend after (the) fair so that makes it a tricky event,” said Velazquez, adding the festival is one of her favorite events of the year. “Garlic Fest has room to grow so there is always more room for vendors. … It’s a great festival. People really enjoy it.” 

After that, there’s the community garage sale on Oct. 16-17 and a barrage of other events, including some Country Chicks events and gun shows. 

“I really like the fact that people are using the fairgrounds again and I think it’s going to be great,” said Riker.