All eyes were turned to western skies Wednesday afternoon as the storm clouds began moving in.

All eyes were turned to western skies Wednesday afternoon as the storm clouds began moving in.

Westerner Days fair a ‘well-oiled machine’ under White

He now works out of an office that’s bigger than the box stalls he was hired to rebuild.

He now works out of an office that’s bigger than the box stalls he was hired to rebuild.

As much as the Westerner Days fair has changed in the past 32 years, it’s still very much the same, says Jim White, hired for a short-term project in February 1979.

White had been working in the oilpatch around High Level and was taking some time off when his brother-in-law, Terry Thomas, asked him to come help tear down and rebuild the horse stalls, a project that he estimated would take two or three weeks.

When the project was finished, White stayed on at Westerner Park, working his way up the ranks to operations manager and assistant general manager, second in command to CEO and general manager John Harms.

Harms readily concedes that nobody knows Westerner Park and its facilities better than White, who has supervised the design and construction of virtually every square centimetre of the site and its buildings, from the ground up.

There was plenty of controversy when White first started with the Westerner.

The fair board was taking heavy flack from people who objected to its plans to move from the river flats at the southeast corner of downtown Red Deer to an empty pasture that, at the time, seemed a long way out of the city.

White had no reservations about the move. It wasn’t just a matter of space.

The grandstand, which housed the fair office, was a century old and well beyond its life expectancy. When they took the roof off, the rest of the building was condemned and the Westerner had to buy a double-wide trailer as a temporary office building.

The temporary office was set up next to the Chalet when the new park was opened in 1982. While the fair board may have called it a temporary fix, the trailer served as command centre for Westerner Park until early last year when it was replaced by the 13,000-square-foot Donald Administration Building, named for long-time volunteers Jack and Joan Donald who contributed $1.5 million toward its construction.

White, 52, is almost apologetic for the size of his office, stating that he had originally intended it to include a small storage room for the drawings of the Westerner’s various buildings. But that idea didn’t fly because the storage room would have blocked some of the windows, which look west over the public parking lot.

The view on the first day of the 2011 fair was not good. Less than three hours after the gates were opened, a nasty storm blackened the sky and heavy rain was pelting the windows that White had been so careful to preserve.

But this is nothing like the deluge that had fallen just over 24 hours earlier, swamping the yet-to-open midway and the road around it and soaking the floor at the rear of the Centrium. More water had come through the roof of the Parkland Pavilion, raising worries among DockDogs organizers that a breaker on the wall was going to short out.

White and Harms agree that the Tuesday afternoon rain was the worst either has ever seen strike the Westerner.

The Wednesday downpour, by comparison, was relatively brief, driving people indoors and causing a temporary shutdown on the midway. An hour later, the nasty clouds had stormed off and a hot sun was rapidly drying the puddles, beckoning people back out to the midway and outdoor stages.

Parking his golf cart back at the office after a tour of the grounds, White says he had actually contemplated finding a new job a couple of times. But then the fair board would come up with a project that he would want to see through.

He was ready to hang up his hat when discussion started about building the Centrium, a project that he couldn’t resist.

Then, there was the construction of additional buildings, including expansion of the Agri-Centre and replacement of the three horse tents with larger, more well-designed shelters that hold a total of 300 animals, along with a stand-alone wash bay where the water is kept warm so people can give their horses a well-earned shower after a hard day of work.

White says it seems like whenever he starts to get a little bored, something comes along to reignite his interest.

If there’s one thing he won’t miss, it’s the older horse tents that had been set up immediately east of the Altaplex. Two were torn down and a third was moved and given a new job elsewhere on the grounds.

Although Westerner Days and its host facility have been through extensive changes, one thing has stayed the same, says White.

The Westerner in all of its manifestations is about people and the job of its staff is to make sure those people get the very best the Westerner has to give.

“It’s a well-oiled machine,” says White.

The work in organizing each year’s fair starts a few days after the last fair has ended, so everything is ready to go when those gates open for the first time at noon on Wednesday, he says.

At that point in time, it’s simply a matter of making sure that well-oiled machine keeps running smoothly.

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