As a 7-year-old, Walter Marquez strode into the gates of the LA County Fair, hand-in-hand with his grandfather and cousins, as was their tradition, ready to take a spin on the tallest ride and pet the fluffiest sheep.
To a child, the Fair looked expansive – lots of rides to conquer, tons of food to try, pens and pens of animals to learn about and watch in awe.
Now, decades later, Marquez stands in the middle of the Fair’s 487 acres – it still looks expansive. There’s lots to conquer, a ton of things to try, and much to learn.
On Dec. 15, the Los Angeles County Fair Association Board of Directors named Marquez the Chief Executive Officer and President of Fairplex after 11 months of him sitting in as the interim. He was hired in 2018 as Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. Marquez is the sixth CEO to lead the organization in its nearly 100 years.
“When the Board approached me, it didn’t take long for me to consider the offer,” Marquez said. “At this point, I know where Fairplex is at and how much opportunity there is, not just for us but for the region. Plus, Fairplex has a great staff – they’re passionate, they care and want to see Fairplex flourish. It was an easy decision – the staff made it easy.”
Leading this storied organization isn’t much of a leap for Marquez, who grew up in the Inland Valley and has strong ties to the area. Marquez was raised in the Ontario/Montclair area, and his Great-grandfather, Pedro Hernandez, had deep roots in Pomona going back to 1917. Hernandez arrived in Pomona when the sidewalks were wooden planks and Main Street held hitching posts for horses. A mason by trade, he helped in the construction of several Pomona Unified School District campuses, buildings in downtown Pomona, as well as the administration building at Harvey Mudd College and the Ontario International Airport.
Marquez continued the family tradition of providing service to the local community. After high school he attended Mt. SAC, then moved to Cal State San Bernardino where he received his bachelor’s in business. He received his MBA from Cal Poly Pomona and a Doctorate of Education from the University of La Verne. Starting his career at UC Riverside, Marquez discovered he enjoyed the world of higher education, eventually joining the California State University system working in finance and treasury, then heading to Cal Poly Pomona, where he worked for 11 years in facilities, construction and land development.
“I enjoyed working in higher education; it is a mission-driven institution, just like Fairplex. It provides the ability to educate California students, giving them the opportunity to grow from high school to life.”
It’s that mission-driven value that drew Marquez to Fairplex in 2018.
“It sounded intriguing, and knowing Fairplex was a mission-driven institution, I knew it would be a fairly smooth to make the transition. I had already spent 11 years working in Pomona – I knew the city, the community relationships were already there. So it wasn’t really goodbye from Cal Poly; I transitioned from employee to community partner, a friend over the hill.”
Marquez had barely settled in as VP and CFO of Fairplex when then CEO Miguel Santana resigned in 2020 to head the Weingart Foundation. The news was a double whammy for the organization as it was in the beginnings of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down all public events on the campus, causing the layoff of nearly 80 percent of staff. Fairplex transitioned to a true community benefit organization, hosting food drives, COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution, housing victims of the pandemic in the Sheraton Hotel, and eventually becoming a federal Emergency Intake Site (EIS) for unaccompanied children.
With the pending departure of Mr. Santana, the Los Angeles County Fair Association Board of Directors tapped Marquez to serve as interim CEO in December 2020. Marquez said he knew Fairplex was in precarious position, with all the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“But I knew I had the support of the Board and staff. I was – am – blessed and fortunate to be surrounded by great leaders; I’ve had many good examples to draw on and people to call.”
Marquez accepted the interim CEO position with the focus of getting Fairplex to the next stepping stone.
“My goal was to lead by saying, ‘Let’s not make any rash decisions.’ During this time, we were fortunate to have a good relationship with Los Angeles County, then the federal government with the Department of Health and Human Services for the EIS. That all came together well, and the community really supported the EIS.”
He said he didn’t take the interim CEO position thinking it would turn permanent.
“I knew it was a possibility, but my goal was to move Fairplex to next space.”
When the Board did approach him with the opportunity, he didn’t take long to consider.
“I know where Fairplex is at this point; it was an easy decision. The staff made it easy.”
When Marquez isn’t focused on the future of Fairplex, he and his wife, Monica, and their two sons can often be found on the soccer field. Soccer is life in the Marquez household, and the Barcelona fan isn’t ashamed to say he is a soccer snob. A follower of European soccer clubs, he can often be found awaking at 4 a.m. PST on the weekends to catch the latest match across the pond in real time.
Marquez officially started the CEO position on December 15, 2021. His vision for Fairplex now is to discover how Fairplex can begin to lift the region, how to work with its institutional partners and leadership within the City of Pomona and the region to bring the area back from the pandemic.
“It’s not just Fairplex that has suffered these past two years, the region did. We have lots of opportunities, like the Gold Line Extension in La Verne and the Specific Plan we are working on with the City of Pomona. It’s a great opportunity not just for Fairplex to determine how we come out of this, it’s a community effort – how do we collectively come out? How does Fairplex use our site to benefit the region to come out of pandemic better than we went in?”