DEL MAR — The 22nd District Agricultural Association, which owns and operates the Del Mar Fairgrounds, wanted to know what area residents thought about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal to sell the iconic local landmark to help close the state budget deficit. So the board of directors decided to gather information to send to Sacramento by inviting people to provide input during the public comment portion of the June 9 meeting.
Of the more than 200 attendees, 33 chose to speak, but the message was unanimous. And the main financial question of the day — why sell something that’s profitable during economic hard times — was perhaps addressed best by the final speaker.
“If business is slow, I’m not going to sell my stove to make money,” said Shoja Naimi, owner of Roxy restaurant in Encinitas, whose customers often include fair and racetrack visitors.
According to DAA statistics displayed at the meeting, no state money was used to buy the fairgrounds, established in 1935, or build any of the buildings. The property is self-funded and requires no tax dollars to operate. It provides the equivalent of 5,000 full-time jobs, and the 300 annual events held there offer opportunities for small businesses, entrepreneurs and charities.
Several speakers confirmed those facts. Del Mar resident Betsy Winsett, who runs consumer shows, said the fairgrounds is one of only two sites in San Diego large enough to accommodate her bridal bazaar, which features 500 small-business exhibitors. The loss of that venue would “significantly impact” her business, she said.
Scott Bass, who produces surfboard exhibits, said the location is a key component to his success. “It’s relevant that I put on a show near the coast,” Bass said.
As requested by the board, Charlie Boghosian stepped up to the microphone and spelled his name: C-h-i-c-k-e-n C-h-a-r-l-i-e. Best known as the guy who will fry anything, Boghosian said his famous fair offerings are a “huge part” of his annual income. With about 50 employees, Boghosian described himself as a good businessman who keeps anything that makes money. This is one of the good kids, he said. “We’re supposed to feed it and take care of it.”
Shelley Koller, an employee at the Surfside Race Place, kept her message short and simple. “Please save it because I want to keep my job,” Koller told board members.
Not everyone came to stress the financial benefits of the fairgrounds. Jerry Hager said he came to speak on the side of fun, describing the site as a place for “adventure, excitement and escape for the young and young at heart.” Once that history is sold, it’s gone, he said. “There’s no turning back.”
A fair attendee since 1961, Steve Marcus described a scene of tired-but-happy children leaving the fair in their parents’ arms. “This is a sacred grounds,” Marcus said. People come to “laugh, talk and have a good time.”
Ray Mooney, a retired member of the U.S. Navy, said military personnel often feel like transients. Mooney has been bringing his family to the fair for 10 years and said it makes him feel like part of the community.
Christine Russell, speaking on behalf of Fallbrook’s Future Farmers of America, said her group sells livestock at the fair’s annual auction. The loss of the fairgrounds would “deprive a generation of kids” of that opportunity, she said.
There were also speakers who addressed the site’s various other events. Joe Harper, president and general manager of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, said losing the track could mark the end of the $3.9 billion horse racing industry on the West Coast. With Hollywood Park closing, Del Mar and Santa Anita remain the “dynamic duo” in Southern California, but one track can’t survive on its own. That revenue loss would cost the state more than it will make in a one-time sale, Harper said.
Holly Richardson, whose parents lost their home and pet in the 2007 fires, spoke about the importance of the facility as an evacuation site for horses. Finally, there were speakers who simply came to share their opinions. Bob Lewis called the proposal “the most ludicrous, irrational plan that’s ever come before this state.”
George Karetas described the proposal as a fire sale to support spending and entitlement programs. He said the state should first consider selling idle, nonworking assets that drain our wallets. “I suggest putting a for-sale sign if front of the state Capitol,” he said.
La Mesa resident Robert Bostick, who’s been coming to the fair for 35 years, said selling the property is a horrible idea. “Frankly, it would leave a hole in our hearts,” he said.