Back before Renee Alexander fell into her first summer working as a college intern at the Minnesota State Fair, the now-CEO figured it was a one-month operation.

"I probably thought that people just showed up the first of August and turned on the lights and made it happen," she said in a recent interview from her new corner office in the squat fair administration building near the main entrance off Snelling Avenue.

From summer intern to CEO with a salary of $325,000, Alexander feels the new weight. "The buck stops with me," she said, in recognition of the heft of the added prominence and duties in succeeding Jerry Hammer, who retired after 27 years in the top job.

In her job interview earlier this year with the State Agricultural Society, which hired her to replace Hammer, Alexander said she talked about her affection for the event where she saw her first concerts — Alabama and Kenny Loggins in 1985.

"I love what I do and I love what we stand for," she said. "I'm not coming in to turn things upside down. This is about staying the course. We're on a good trajectory."

She took over from Hammer in May and settled into the office he had filled with decades of memorabilia, photos and tchotchkes. As of mid-July, the place was clean and mostly empty. One picture leaning against the wall had yet to be hung: the 2023 official fair poster, marking her first as CEO.

On Day 1, she'll be at the gate for the first visitors, which she said is always fun and surprising. "You've been planning this party all year and it's like, they came, they actually came," she said.

After growing up in Coon Rapids, Alexander studied business communications at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, expecting a career in the corporate world. Before her senior year in the summer of 1989, she landed an internship at the fair that she'd happened into through an extended grapevine of friends and family.

Decades later, she still recalls being blown away by the communal spirit of the 12-day event.

"Egos get pushed to the side," she said. "It's very much, 'How do we put out the best fair we can?' There is value in what you're doing whether you're pulling garbage or delivering pop and water or you're performing on a stage. It takes all of us to make it happen. We're all part of the wheel that makes it go."

By the end of the summer, she had a landed a full-time job that would await her at graduation as the coordinator of the fair's free entertainment. She stayed for a few years before venturing out to experience other entertainment work.

Eleven years later, she returned to Falcon Heights to book and produce the higher-profile acts at the Grandstand, work she intends to continue — for now — in her new position. "It's so much of a relationship business and I have built these relationships with the agents through the years," she said, adding that other staff have taken over production aspects.

Asked what keeps her up at night now that she's in charge, Alexander said promptly, "All of it. We feel responsible for everybody that walks through that gate."

Safety and security are a top concern because the fair turns into a city every day, with crowds ranging from about 100,000 on the lower end to the daily record of 270,426 set on the final Saturday in 2018.

Alexander comes into the job with goodwill from fair veterans who know her well.

"I'm ecstatic about the choice," said Tim Weiss, who runs the wildly popular Giggles Campfire Grill. "I've known her a long time. I couldn't be happier."

But Alexander can't control the most critical factor in fair attendance, and therefore sales: the weather. "You don't say the 'R-word' in August," Weiss said.

Mary Chung, executive director of the State Fair Foundation, which supports but is separate from the fair, has known Alexander for 15 years and worked alongside her for a decade.

Chung said Alexander is focused on the fair's employees, partners and vendors, not a personal agenda. "She's very strategic and smart in that way. It comes from a very caring place, I think, but it's also a really smart place," Chung said.

She describes Alexander as supportive in helping others develop their careers and ideas that aren't her own. "She's also been such a resource for everybody around her in terms of problem solving, creative thinking and approaching new projects."

During the fair's off-season, Alexander likes to travel — she took a recent two-week trip to Panama with her sister — and spend time with her 11-year-old rescue dog, Baxter, a Labrador retriever.

She won't talk about any new ideas she has cooking for the fair, saying it takes years to test and make changes. For example, this will be the first year the rides at the fair will be without paper tickets in the Mighty Midway and Kidway. The changeover to a rechargeable fun card pass has been years in the testing, she said.

As an experienced administrator, Alexander is aware that when it comes to change at the fair, there is no margin for error. Visitors expect a smooth operation so they can focus on fun.

She sneaks in a few moments for herself during the long days, admitting that the high school bands in the parade move her every time. She's also a fan of the burger at Wild Rice Specialties in the Food Building.

And while she'll be busy overseeing her first fair in less than three weeks, she is always thinking long term.

"You've got a 160-year history, and you don't want to mess it up," she said. "You want it to remain healthy and successful and important in the state for generations to come."