By DAVID JONES
LOOKING AHEAD: Expo Square CEO Rick Bjorklund is awaiting this year’s Tulsa State Fair as well as the many projects slated on the property in the future. The photo was taken last October after last year’s fair. In the background in the Esplanade, which leads to the renovated Expo Square Pavilion in the background. To the right is the Built Ford Tough Livestock Complex.
GTR Newspapers photo; Artwork by ALICIA SCHRUM
The Tulsa State Fair is coming Sept. 27 and will run through Oct. 7, but that’s not the only thing exciting for those who work at Expo Square.
“Anyone who comes to the fairgrounds five or 10 years from now,” says Expo Square President and CEO Rick Bjorklund, “will find something to do. No matter what that person’s interest, we’ll have something fascinating going on. We’re going to be like those 20-screen movie multiplexes; we’re going to offer so many attractions simultaneously that something will be bound to catch a person’s interest.”
New barns! New arenas! New exhibition facilities! A new jewel of entertainment joining the Tulsa entertainment crown with newer facilities like the BOK Center and old ones like the Performing Arts Center and the newly refurbished Expo Square Pavilion is in the process of being completed. You can almost hear a barker calling HURRY, HURRY, HURRY.
Bjorklund is getting ready for his second Tulsa State Fair. The fair is a major attraction for the fairgrounds, but it is far from the only one. “Most fairgrounds get 80 to 90 percent of their annual cash flow in a 10-14 day span. Expo Square isn’t like that. In 2006 we had 1,055,948 attend the fair and 2,825,099 at non-fair events. There were 391 events.
“We get around one-third of our cash flow from the fair, another third from other events and the rest from auxiliary events like the horse races, Driller games and Big Splash. Ours is a more mixed bag and the mix is about to increase.”
Bjorklund credits two things to the rejuvenation of Expo Square at a time when fairgrounds all over the nation are struggling with their aging facilities to survive another season.
“You have to thank the people who put together the packages for Vision 2025 and 4-to-Fix-the-County. They spent thousands of hours in the years preceding the bond issue votes putting together packages that would appeal to the people of Tulsa County. They did a great job in analyzing the needs and wants of the people of the area.
“Tulsa is also fortunate in that the county, and not the state, owns the fairgrounds. In most areas the local fairgrounds are owned by the state but not in Tulsa. When it comes to improvements, it’s difficult to get a farmer in the Panhandle feeling all warm and fuzzy over a new barn at Expo Square, but it makes sense for a resident of the county.”
The three bond issues, Vision 2025 and two 4-to-Fix the County projects, have led to an expansion and improvement of fairgrounds facilities that has thrilled longtime fairgrounds employees.
“Ten years ago,” says Paula Crain, Director of Marketing and Event Development, “we were having problems just keeping things maintained to stay safe for the public. We’ve been utilizing the bond money well, and when I showed a representative of the U.S. Arabian Horse show, which is coming here for three years beginning in 2008, what we had done in the past year she was amazed. ‘You’ve done everything you promised to do,’ she said. It made me feel wonderful.
“I was here when the area was declining and people bringing events were unhappy and now we have one of the top facilities in the county.”
The rejuvenated space will mean millions to the Tulsa economy, Bjorklund says. “Our projections are that the Arabian Horse Show will be worth $40 million and they have a contract for three years with a two-year option so you can see the ultimate effect might be in the $200 million range.
“Fairground economics, however, are variable. We recently had a show with Ron White who is an extremely gifted comedian and the audience loved him. But most of the audience was local. The people ate at their homes, came out and had a great time and then returned to their homes. The economic impact primarily was in the tickets and the concessions.
“The Arabian Horse Show, on the other hand, will be different. We’ll have people from all over the world coming here. They’ll fill the hotels. They’ll eat at the restaurants. They’ll go to movies. They’ll go shopping. They will do all this over a period of several days so the economic impact will be stretched out. It’s an exciting prospect.”
Getting something as major as the horse show didn’t spring out of thin air; it is the result of years of generalized planning long before the horse show was considered a possibility.
“I have to give credit to my predecessor, Denny Tuttle,” says Bjorklund. “He was a wonderful person to know. If you couldn’t like Denny the problem was with you, not Denny. Unfortunately he died suddenly in January, 2006, but by the time he did he had Expo Square in such excellent shape that it was easy to step in and continue.”
Bjorklund received his degree in commercial recreation from Arizona State University in 1972, and upon graduation got a job with the Phoenix Suns of the National Basketball Association. He quickly left that position for one with the Arizona State Fair, which, like so many other fairs, was having problems.
“I made a living going into troubled facilities after that,” he says.
He was working with the Nebraska State Fair in Omaha when Tuttle died. A headhunter got him an interview for the Tulsa job. He was hired and arrived to take on his new responsibilities in June 2006.
The expansion continues and will continue to expand.
The newly renamed QuikTrip Center which, Bjorklund says, would be practically impossible to build today, offers a staggering 400,000 square feet (10.5 acres) but can be whittled down to areas as small as 100,000 square feet if the occasion demands.
Crain says that because of that adaptability when the American Boer Goat Association was looking for space for June, 2008 she had to tell them all the normal arena space was taken but she could put them up in a section of the QuikTrip Center. The goat association quickly accepted and this next June, 1,200 to 1,500 goats will be sharing the biggest barn they’ve ever seen.
The Built Ford Tough Livestock Complex has hugely expanded the services Expo Square can offer and the new barns have increased the amount of livestock that can be housed, but they are by no means the end of these improvements.
“We are in the middle of constructing Central Park Hall,” says Bjorklund. “When it is completed it will add 43,000 square feet of exhibition space with two meeting rooms or reception areas. It should be completed in February 2008.
“As soon as the fair leaves the midway we’ll start on the Exchange Center which will itself add 58,500 square feet of exhibition space. We’ve been working on what we call Phases One, Two, Three and Four with the bond issue money and even with 28 days lost to rain this summer we’re going to finish on time and on budget.”
“Then we’ll look at Phase Five.”
Phase Five? No Phase Five has ever been mentioned. Where will it be and what will it include?
“It will primarily be on the eastern side of the property, but I can’t tell you what will be in it,” says Bjorklund. “So much depends on things we can’t control. Will the Drillers be moving to a downtown location? That would open up a prime corner at 15th Street and Yale Avenue. We know they have been in talks with people but we don’t know how those talks are progressing.
“Big Splash? They have a lease for another three years with a two-year option. What will they decide to do? Nobody knows.
“One prediction I can make with absolute certainty is that the grandstand at Fair Meadows will undergo a major change. The current facility is ancient and crumbling. It needs either major renovation or total replacement.
“The land where Bell’s Amusement Park once stood on the western side of the property? For the time being we’re planning to leave that flat with it used primarily for parking. We don’t know how it will ultimately be utilized.”
And how will all this be paid for?
“We are going to have some monies left over from the bond issues. The rest? I don’t know.”
So that is the current status of Expo Square. Once crumbling buildings have been spruced up, ancient facilities are being replaced with state-of-the-art units, and what was once a group of buildings whose stewards were trying to make do another year on the cheap has become a major entertainment venue.
Events are planned and there are 7,000 nearby parking spaces to accommodate the entertainment-seekers.
As the old fairgrounds barker might say, HURRY, HURRY, HURRY!