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Erie County Fair's longtime leader steps down

The longtime leader of the Erie County Fair announced his retirement Monday.

Friday will be the last day on the job for Dennis "Denny" Lang, who was appointed CEO and fair manager in 1999. Current Assistant Fair Manager and Manager of Agriculture Jessica Underberg will succeed Lang on Sunday.

A release by the Erie County Agricultural Society announcing the 69-year-old Lang's retirement credited him for putting the fair on firmer financial footing, updating historic buildings and livestock barns, increasing revenue and boosting agricultural education.

"I'm probably fortunate to have had one of the best jobs in the country from the standpoint of the fair business," Lang said. "It was just a dream job."

Lange became immersed in the Erie County Fair through his father, the late Paul Lang, an Erie County Agricultural Society board member involved in the fair’s horse pulling competitions. In 1959, 10-year-old Dennis exhibited ponies at the fair, and went on to show at other state and county fairs and became an equine trainer.

Lang served as the fairground’s primary adviser for all horse activities. He joined the board of directors in 1988, and was president in 1998 and 1999.

Following a career in the insurance industry, Lang was appointed CEO of the Erie County Agricultural Society in October 1999.

Lang said his greatest satisfaction during his tenure has been rebuilding the fairgrounds.

"We were able to build almost a brand new fairgrounds at the same location," he said. "We took a 1950s property and turned it into a 21st-century operation in a safe family park atmosphere."

The renamed Hamburg Gaming opened in 2004, and a financial reserve created from the revenue enabled the fairground's largest-ever capital improvement campaign.

Livestock barns along McKinley Parkway were upgraded, leading to the opening of the Showplex Arena in 2010. New horse barns, paddock building and modern horse show office followed.

The Art Deco-style Firemen’s Building and 1885 Octagon Building were restored, the latter renamed as the Heritage and History Center Fair Museum. Improvements also include a new first aid building and lavatories.

The Agriculture Discovery Center opened and offers year-round agricultural education. Essential infrastructure projects were completed, and the Festival of Lights begun.

Lang is going out on a high note: This year's fair attendance was the second highest ever, just behind 2014's  1.2 million mark. The 2014 attendance ranked the county fair as the 10th largest fair in North America.

He will continue to serve as a board member.

"It's very mixed emotions," Lang said about leaving. "I know it's time, but it's also hard."

But he also looks forward to spending time with his two grandchildren without, he said, "feeling like I'm carrying around a 100-pound weight on my shoulders every morning."

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