Fairgrounds’ purchase debate continues

COAST CITIES — Del Mar Mayor Richard Earnest and Councilman Carl Hilliard asked Solana Beach City Council at its Oct. 27 meeting to support its purchase of the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Tim Fennell, the facility’s general manager, was given equal time at the Nov. 17 meeting to explain why he thought the acquisition was a bad idea.
Following that presentation, Solana Beach City Councilman Dave Roberts, who along with Mayor Tom Campbell makes up a subcommittee that has been discussing the sale with Del Mar, was still unclear about Fennell’s comment that the current fair board supports “true regional control.”
“I think our subcommittee would like to understand what those three words really mean,” Roberts said. “Also we’d like to discuss the historical challenges (both cities) have had over known impacts that have been caused by the operations at that fairgrounds and that we have tried and been stymied every way we’ve turned to get the Legislature, the 22nd DAA or others to recognize.”
The fairgrounds is currently operated by the
22nd District Agricultural Association’s nine-member board of directors made up of state appointees from throughout the county.
Del Mar is proposing an 11-member board that includes five appointees from Del Mar and one each from Solana Beach and the city and county of San Diego; a county agricultural representative; and the director of the San Diego Association of Governments and the San Dieguito River Valley Joint Powers Authority.
Both sides claim their governance structure represents the best example of local control. Del Mar officials say city ownership would also provide better means to mitigate negative impacts. The city also opposes current expansion plans that include a convention center, rooftop sports fields and a hotel condominium.
Fennell touted the facility’s positive impacts, calling it the “most financially successful fairgrounds in the country.”
“I don’t want you to take my word for it,” he said. “Please do your due diligence and I think you’ll come to the same conclusion.”
The fairgrounds hosts the fifth largest fair in the United States as well as more than 300 other annual events, including home, animal and sporting goods shows, weddings, corporate meetings, business expos, cotillion and holiday celebrations.
It serves as an emergency training facility and is an official evacuation site for the county Office of Emergency Services, with onsite supplies for 1,000 people. It housed more than 6,000 animals and people during wildfires in 2003 and 2007.
“We were three days up and running (in 2007) before the Red Cross or county services were able to get to our facility because of their commitments,” Fennell said.
It also hosts the “most successful (horse) race meet on a day-to-day basis in the nation,” he said. The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club was awarded a 20-year contract, there have been $191 million in race-related capital improvements and plans are in the works to host the Breeders Cup by 2013 or 2014.
“And that, by the way, has been in our master plan for a number of years,” Fennell said. “So if someone tells you that we’re phasing out horse racing or that we’re not investing in horse racing, that is not an accurate statement.”
In addition to providing 5,000 jobs and $425 million in economic impact to the region, “we feel that we are a community asset to the city of Solana Beach,” Fennell said.
He said Solana Beach receives hotel and sales tax revenue from those who attend fairgrounds events, as well as money from off-track betting.
The facility provides jobs and other business opportunities for residents. It provides storage space and loans equipment to the city at no cost and sponsors local coastal clean-up programs annually, Fennell said.
He said he opposes the sale for several reasons. “The city will control the oversight board,” he said, adding that the Del Mar’s vision “is different than what our mission is.”
“They basically want to keep the city of Del Mar their quiet village,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any secret that the city of Del Mar has created stumbling blocks for virtually every improvement on the fairgrounds for the last 18 years.”
Two cities come to agreement
Del Mar has been seeking a letter from its northern neighbor supporting it purchase. While Solana Beach favors local control, officials were hesitant to submit a letter without some guarantees they would be more involved in solving ongoing problems with noise, traffic, parking and public safety reimbursement. They also sought increased or equal representation on the governing board.
Following a Nov. 17 closed session meeting, the city attorney announced that the council gave unanimous direction to the city manager, Campbell and Roberts “to finalize a proposal based on many discussions with the city of Del Mar’s ad hoc committee regarding the acquisition and operations of the Del Mar Fairgrounds that includes general goals, acquisition of the property, benefits of working together, organizational structures, land use control and sharing expenses.”
Exactly what is stated in the letter “unfortunately … is not available to the public at this time,” Roberts said.
Campbell and Roberts were scheduled to provide an update on discussions with Del Mar regarding the potential sale at the Nov. 17 meeting. That item was adjourned to the special meeting on Nov. 18, at which time it was moved to an unspecified date.
On Nov. 22, the city scheduled it to be heard at 6 p.m. on Nov. 24.

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