GEDDES — During a tour of the New York State Fairgrounds, Sean Hennessey’s energy is on display.
He asks about the landscaping, shows where Tully’s permanent stand will be located and is eager to talk about some of the upcoming projects on the west end of the fairgrounds. He takes a break to stop at Toyota Coliseum, which was hosting a horse show.
For Hennessey, it’s all part of a busy first month as the fair’s interim director. He was hired as assistant fair director but was asked to lead final preparations for this year’s fair after Troy Waffner’s abrupt departure in May. Waffner served as acting fair director beginning in 2014 and was appointed fair director in 2018.
“It’s like drinking out of two fire hoses,” Hennessey said of his new job during an interview with The Citizen. “I’m a very energetic personality. I like to be busy. This has really given me the opportunity to tap into that. It’s been nothing but positive for me up to this point. The people have embraced me. They are great to work with.”
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His road to the New York State Fair began in two New York City boroughs. He was born in Manhattan and raised in Queens. After graduating from high school, he left the city for the North Country. He attended SUNY Canton, where he met his wife. Following his college graduation, the couple relocated to Black River, a village in Jefferson County. They have four children.
Hennessey’s professional career began in the private sector. He worked as an industrial engineer for Northland Motor, a Watertown-based manufacturer of electric motors.
He left that job to become a representative election commissioner in Jefferson County and became election commissioner after his predecessor retired. That was the beginning of his public service.
His start in state government was with the Office of General Services. He was a building superintendent responsible for overseeing the state government building in Watertown. He later took a job as a regional superintendent managing state-owned facilities in Buffalo, Syracuse, Utica and Watertown.
Prior to becoming interim state fair director, he was an assistant commissioner of operations with the state Department of Transportation. He had a vast coverage area, stretching across central New York, through the Mohawk Valley and into the North Country. Most of his work, he said, focused on an emergency response. He responded to health and safety problems, such as floods, and helped launch the state-run vaccination site in Watertown.
Hennessey found the assistant fair director’s job listing on Indeed and decided to apply. After interviewing with the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, which oversees the fair, he was hired. The job was listed before Waffner’s departure.
The fair, which runs from Aug. 24 through Sept. 5, is in a good place, he says. Entertainment acts have been booked and venues are being prepared for the 13-day event. Before the fair is another big event, Syracuse Nationals, that will be held from July 15-17.
Like many others, Hennessey believes 13 days is the appropriate length of the fair — the state experimented with an 18-day schedule last year before switching back to its pre-pandemic run.
“Thirteen is a good number,” he said. “It gives everybody an opportunity to get here… We got something for everybody here at the Great New York State Fair.”
He highlighted what he summarized as the four “Fs”: Family, food, fun and farming. It’s the last “F” he hopes to refocus on as interim fair director.
The fair has two major projects planned, both of which will benefit the agricultural community. There are plans to construct a new sheep barn. The previous barn was damaged in a 2018 storm and torn down before the 2019 fair. Fair officials planned to have a new barn rebuilt in time for the 2020 fair, but then COVID struck.
Another project in the works is the construction of a year-round, 1.5-acre greenhouse on the west end of the fairgrounds.
“The benefits of agriculture here in New York state and the impact on the economy here in New York state is dramatic,” Hennessey said. “We’ll keep with what we’ve been doing — food, fun, deep-fried whatever — but we also want to make sure we highlight the farming community that we have here in New York state because they are a wonderful group of people .”
He’s also hoping the crowds return. Before the pandemic, the fair set an all-time attendance record with more than 1.3 million visitors in 2019. When the fair returned last year, even with an 18-day run, attendance dipped to 798,095 — its lowest point in three decades.
While COVID-19 is still present, Hennessey thinks fairgoers understand what they need to do to keep themselves safe. He also knows, based on events held at the fairgrounds this spring and into the summer, that “people are really desperate to get out.”
“I really feel like this year is going to be a big year for the fair,” he said.
Hennessey has his favorite fair foods — he enjoys the shrimp burger from Daniella’s Steakhouse and the chicken and greens sandwich from It’s a Utica Thing. The Center of Progress building, a venue that hosts several state agencies during the fair, is a place he loves because it has many resources in one location.
The future of the fair’s leadership is an unanswered question. Hennessey was tasked with leading the fair through this year’s event. A decision about the director’s position will be made after the fair.
For now, Hennessey is focused on having a great fair this year.
“I see nothing but great things going forward here at the New York State Fair,” he said.
Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.