Charlie Gardner is general manager of @the Grounds. (Photo by Ryan Angel Meza)

A New Era for Roseville’s Placer County Fairgrounds

Back Q&A Jun 2, 2021 By Sena Christian

This story is part of our June 2021 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Charlie Gardner took over as general manager of @the Grounds in Roseville in December 2020. Previously, he was a project manager at the Washington State Public Stadium Authority, which owns Lumen Field where the Seattle Seahawks play, but his career has taken him to jobs all over the country. Placer County Fairgrounds, which was rebuilt with new facilities and opened as @the Grounds in February 2020, has hosted the Placer County Fair for more than 80 years in addition to trade shows and other events. The venue has been managed by Placer Valley Tourism since 2017, which oversaw the rebranding and major renovations of the 55-acre campus. Comstock’s spoke to Gardner about this new era for the fairgrounds, which includes the new 160,000-square-foot, $34 million Roebbelen Center.

You’ve worked in facilities and events management for 20 years. What led you to this position?

This is my 12th or 13th city to live in. I’ve traveled quite a bit for work in the industry. If you want to move up, you have to move a lot. … When opportunities arose, I was always flexible enough in my personal life that allowed me to do that. But long story short: I was in St. Louis, and I was working at the convention center and the stadium there, where the (NFL) Rams played, as VP of operations, and a friend in the industry contacted me … to come to Seattle. … I moved there in December 2019, and the gentleman who had been there from the beginning was retiring. He left at the end of February (2020), and I moved into my office, and two weeks later, I was sent home because of COVID. … I stayed on until the end of October, and they finally said, “Look, we don’t know what we’re going to do. We don’t know what’s going to happen.” Frankly, I’d said to them, “I’m surprised it took this long.” … 

I had a friend who was a headhunter, and he turned me on to this position. Obviously, this is quite different than being in NFL stadiums, but what I found in my career … when I was in the roles in the larger organizations, I didn’t have a lot of reach. I had a very narrow scope of what I was doing, and I found that to be unsatisfying. This one is essentially a startup, because (@the Grounds was) only open for three events before they had to shut down for COVID last year, and most of the staff had been furloughed or let go because no events were going on. So it was an opportunity to kind of create something from scratch.

You took over as general manager during an unprecedented time. What have you learned about your industry’s ability to adapt?

We’re being as creative as we can possibly be to bring events in that we can host. The thing that I’ve taken away from the industry in this situation — and I have a lot of contacts across the country, and I’m involved with the International Association of Venue Managers — is the adaptability and nimbleness of everyone in the situation to try to minimize the damage that’s caused financially and personally to people’s jobs and lives. … 

Larger venues, which even include this venue, they’ve really done a great job managing the financial expectations. You watch what the NFL has done (and) what baseball has done, what hockey has done and what basketball has done: They figured out a way to keep us entertained. It’s been interesting to watch. I’ve learned a lot, have gotten a lot of great tips and ideas. … I would never want this to happen again, but it’s been invaluable that it’s happened in a lot of ways, to be able to kind of expand the scope and our ideas of what we can do. 

What are some of the events the Grounds has been able to hold over these past several months?

We are a vaccination point for Placer County … since Jan. 2, and we’ll probably continue that for the foreseeable future. We’ve been able to socially distance groups that are doing classes. We have a company that teaches people how to trim trees, and so we can socially distance, and they’re outside actually surveying the trees. We’ve got notary classes. We’ve been able to do some smaller events, and none of them really are anything that’s a major revenue source, (but we’re) helping business continuity for these companies. (In April, @the Grounds hosted a two-day SacAnime swap meet and a two-day volleyball tournament was held in May.) The upcoming Placer County Fair (will be) held at @the Grounds on June 24 to 27.

People may think of Placer County Fairgrounds as the home of the Placer County Fair and some smaller trade shows. What is your vision for the Grounds?

Everybody that was involved in the construction of it and the vision they had for it did such a fantastic job. Focusing on youth sports, which is an industry that is really doing very well right now and for the foreseeable future can do very well — parents always seem to love to spend their money on their kids — the business model that was created here almost can’t fail. We’re still going to be able to recover from (the pandemic) once this is all over.

These fairgrounds had been in the center of Roseville for 80 years and had kind of gone fallow; things like that happen over time when there’s not a reason for reinvestment from the municipality. … But the vision of Placer Valley Tourism and (CEO David Attaway) and everybody involved to reinvest in it and find ways to fund the reinvestment, the creativity associated with that and what was delivered … was just great. My responsibility is to make sure that I shepherd the process so this can be everything that everybody that was involved in creating it dreamed up. It’s my job now to deliver that vision.

The centerpiece is the Roebbelen Center. What types of events can the center accommodate?

We can do cheerleading competitions, basketball, volleyball, wrestling, dance competitions. … We (had) The Great Junk Hunt (in March). We’ll be able to do some consumer shows. … We can do graduations. It’s a full-on community center in many ways, a mini-Sacramento Convention Center, obviously on a much smaller scale. But we’re also a lot more flexible than they are because they have one mission — to drive hotel room nights, which is our mission as well. It is our primary focus, but with the fairgrounds, with the (All American) Speedway, with the flexibility of the new building, the renovation of the two previous buildings that were here (Jones Hall and Johnson Hall), we can hold concurrent events. We even have people approaching us about concerts and outdoor concerts. We’re doing festivals and fairs here. … 

Everybody sees Roseville as being such a thriving community at the moment and Sacramento being thriving and us being part of that. We have a built-in (population) base for people to attend these events. With everything in Sacramento — Cal Expo or the convention center or with Golden 1 Center — this gives people an opportunity to do things outside of (the city), in the suburbs of Sacramento, which is very common in major markets. The places that I’ve been, in those markets, there’s almost always a secondary option for business that doesn’t necessarily maximize or fit what the city center venues do. And our flexibility gives us that opportunity to do pretty much anything.

What is the relationship between the Grounds and All American Speedway? 

It is on the Grounds, and Bill McAnally Racing is the leaseholder to host exclusive racing events at the venue. They’ll (host) 14 racing events this year. … It is part of our property that we manage.

The Grounds is in a residential area. Does that impact the work you do or the types of events you can host?

Almost in no way. The speedway is the one that you would think would be difficult with the noise, but we have a relationship with the community where a lot of them are enthusiasts and enjoy having a speedway close. But we are extremely careful to make sure we’re meeting any kind of guidelines that we have with the (City of Roseville) so we’re not disturbing our neighbors. Bill McAnally Racing and @the Grounds work together and work very hard to make sure we’re a positive asset to the community. Otherwise, the fact that we’re in the center of the community and in proximity to so many other things to do, places to stay, restaurants to eat, how close we are to the (Westfield Galleria at Roseville), it actually helps us be successful.

What do you like about the work that you do?

Throughout my career — at arenas and convention centers and amphitheaters, in stadiums and fairgrounds, theaters and pretty much everything you can think of … the one consistent thing and the reason we are here is to put smiles on people’s faces. I’d have a concert, and you see everybody just having a wonderful time and yelling and cheering at a game, and there is a certain level of satisfaction that I get from looking at that and saying I was part of that. People need those kinds of distractions in their life, especially now with what’s going on in the world, how desperate people are to get out there and have experiences like that. I think we appreciate it a lot more now than we did before. We took it probably a little bit for granted, and now we don’t. … I can’t wait to make this fully realized once COVID is over. 

Edited for length and clarity. 

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