The long-awaited 100th edition of the Deschutes County Fair and Rodeo is scheduled to kick off July 31, running through Aug. 4. But the man who has led the fair for nearly a fifth of its run has seen his last rodeo (well, at least his last rodeo that goes along with the fair).

In fact, Dan Despotopulos, who plans to retire as Deschutes County Fair and Expo Center director May 31, won’t even be in the country during the fair. He’ll be traveling to Europe with his son, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, from mid-July to mid-August.

But his hands will be all over the planning of the centennial event, including its budget and the highly anticipated musical lineup, which is expected to be announced March 28.

“It should be a pretty easy transition,” said Despotopulos, 64. “All the major stuff is done.”

Like the county, the fair has seen tremendous growth since Despotopulos arrived in October 2000. Despotopulos came in around the time the county took over management of the fair from the Deschutes County Fair Association, according to Bulletin archives. The $31 million fairgrounds, which opened in July 1999, was operating with a half-million dollar debt. An accounting firm determined that “out of their league” amateurs were running a world-class facility, bouncing county checks and mysteriously transferring money between accounts that county commissioners didn’t even know existed, the paper reported.

But now the fairgrounds is stocked with events year-round, from the new USA Climbing bouldering nationals, which were expected to air on ESPN 2 to the High Desert Stampede Rodeo to a recreational vehicle rally with 6,000 campers, as well as dozens of smaller events in its various halls.

In the past, the fairgrounds has even played host to Portland Trail Blazers National Basketball Association preseason games.

And the fair itself grows in attendance at an average rate of 6 percent per year, drawing 293,000 people in 2018, Despotopulos said.

Despotopulos came to the fair after years in ice rink management. The Massachusetts native grew up around hockey and moved to Los Angeles in 1980 to operate ice rinks for the then-popular Ice Capades. His time in rink management included a couple stints at the Clackamas Town Center, where Despotopulos got to know the family of a young Tonya Harding in the early 1980s, as well as in the San Diego area, where he was part of a group that purchased the San Diego Ice Arena.

Road to Redmond

He came to Central Oregon in the late 1990s because of the prospect of opening a new ice rink at Bend’s Old Mill District. While that deal fell apart, Despotopulos did build a portable ice rink in 1999 near the Juniper Swim Center, which he said was used in Bend’s first WinterFest.

With the permanent ice rink deal dead and issues going on at the fairgrounds, Despotopulos was hired to manage the facility. While the fairgrounds has grown to hosting nearly 400 events annually, including the largest county fair in the state, Despotopulos says its a team effort for the facility’s 12 employees, including four who have been there at least 17 years.

“I’m not going to take credit for any of that,” he said. “Deschutes County has grown like crazy. I think I can remember the sign coming into Bend — 24,000, coming up to Redmond, it was 11,000 or 12,000. Central Oregon is on the map.”

Employees, especially the six in operations, have a great deal of responsibility, Despotopulos said. In recent weeks, they’ve had to follow up rock-climbing events by moving tons of dirt into the arena to get it ready for monster truck and equestrian events. Then they must clear the dirt out and get the space spotless for the annual Sportsmen’s Show.

Sometimes, the arena is covered with dirt, but they must bring in 2,000 cubic yards more dirt, as they are doing between the High Desert Stampede and a BMX event, only to then remove it for the Home and Garden Show.

“It’s a lot of work and a lot of effort,” Despotopulos said.

And all the people coming in to town spend money, Despotopulos said. Last year’s BMX event brought people from 13 states and two Canadian provinces.

“People come from all over,” he said. “We’re filling up hotels and motels. It’s a huge, huge economic impact for the region.”

He also credits entities the fairgrounds works closely with like the county, the city of Redmond and the Redmond Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s just been a great relationship all the way around,” he said.

Continued growth

Among the innovations under Despotopulos was a recreational vehicle park that went up in 2007 and a planned expansion of the Middle and South Sister exhibition buildings, which is expected to add around 8,000 square feet of show space.

The fairgrounds could also soon be adding an additional 140 acres, as part of a land swap involving the state and Redmond. While the fair doesn’t have immediate plans for the land, Despotopulos said it is important to have to allow for future growth, adding that nearby development has stunted the growth of other Oregon fairs.

“They built it 20 years ahead of its time,” Despotopulos said of the fairgrounds. “It’s year 21 and we need to start doing some improvements to continue to grow our business.”

Business is only expected to pick up as three new hotels are planned nearby. Two are near the Highway 97 interchange with Airport Way and a third will be located just outside the fairgrounds entrance.

The county is working to recruit a replacement for Despotopulos, he said.

Despotopulos was recognized by the Redmond Chamber of Commerce with its Life Time Achievement award at its January awards dinner. Despotopulos has been a longtime member of the chamber’s board and was its president in 2005.

“His dedication to providing outstanding customer service, maintaining a facility at the highest standards, and culturing a staff equally dedicated to the organization and regional facility where they all work,” Eric Sande, the chamber’s executive director, said in his introduction of Despotopulos. “Over the last 18 years his leadership and brought international recognition to the region and has provided world-class entertainment for all to enjoy.

While 293,000 people attended the 2018 fair, Despotopulos said there’s more to it than numbers.

“It’s not about the money, it’s not about the hard work,” he said. “It’s about seeing people happy when they come in and out of events.”

— Reporter: 541-548-2186, gfolsom@ redmondspokesman.com

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