Del Mar comes to aid of smaller fair

DEL MAR — Christmas came early for the Modoc District Fair after the 22nd District Agricultural Association board of directors agreed at the Dec. 11 meeting to give $100,000 to its significantly smaller counterpart in the northeast corner of the state. 

The 34th District Agricultural Association was in danger of having to permanently shut down.

The money from the 22nd DAA, which governs the Del Mar Fairgrounds, will keep the Modoc Fair afloat for at least another year, but hopefully indefinitely as officials try to implement revenue-generating ideas that will allow it to eventually become self-sustainable.

“I don’t want you to feel like I’m here to ask for charity,” Dannette DePaul, 34th DAA chief executive officer, said. “I’m not. I’m asking for support to allow us to get into that business mode.”

Modoc County has a population of about 9,700. Slightly more than 500 people live in Cedarville, which is home to the fair, a four-day event that has been ongoing since 1920.

The area hospital, elementary and high schools and clinic are also located in the small city. The economy is primarily agriculture that includes sheep, cattle, commercial alfalfa and hay.

During the offseason the facilities are rented to nonprofit organizations, businesses and locals for events such as fundraisers, weddings, family reunions, blood drives and school activities.

During disasters the site serves as a crisis center for humans and animals and is a cooling center during extreme heat conditions. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management use the fairgrounds for training as well as fire camp during the fire season.

The fair began receiving state money through horse racing revenues in 1935, but that funding source was eliminated by Sacramento in July of this year. Its current annual budget is about $355,000.

Future revenue-generating ventures include guided wagon train and horseback tours, cattle drives and mountain bike races or tours.

DePaul said she is also working to have the site serve as a stopping point for showers and camping for people attending Burning Man, an annual art and self-expression event that draws tens of thousands of people to the nearby Black Rock Desert of Nevada.

DePaul estimates the new income-producing projects could generate about $83,500 a year. But with $239,000 in reserves and other projected income and estimated expenses of about $377,700, she said the district won’t make it through the year.

“If we get no help we can get through May or June,” she said. “The fair, I anticipate, will shut down by June.”

With the support of Del Mar, Mark Milano, a Modoc ranch owner, has committed to a $50,000 grant for the 34th DAA, with the possibility of extending the offer in future years, DePaul said.

Diana Paluszak, with the state Department of Food and Agriculture Division of Fairs and Expositions, said her agency is very supportive of larger fairs helping smaller ones become more self-sufficient.

“This is the direction we’d like to see all fairs go,” Paluszak said, adding that state funding for fairs is a thing of the past.

Of the 52 active agricultural associations in the state, she said about 13 are in the negative but can maintain themselves for now.

“It’s the ones I don’t know about that scare me,” she said, noting not all boards have come forward like Modoc to say they need help.

While the state can’t provide financial help, she said it can offer resources such as networking, budgeting advice and alternate management opportunities.

“Sometimes it just boils down to relationships,” she said.

The 22nd DAA directors support helping Modoc, but some were a bit wary of setting a precedent.

“There has to be other wells,” Fred Schenk said.

Paluszak said her department will suggest other viable fairs, such as those in Los Angeles and Orange County, adopt their smaller counterparts.

Director David Watson also wanted some assurance the state agency would not come back to the 22nd DAA in the future and say the action was inappropriate.

About a year ago the Department of Food and Agriculture accused the 22nd DAA of improperly providing board member benefits and employee leave buybacks.

“I don’t want to be inadvertently criticized that this wasn’t the right thing to do,” Watson said. “I don’t want us to get our hand slapped again.”

Paluszak said she “will do everything we can to ensure this it’s a smooth transition.”

Board President Adam Day also wanted assurances the state would work with the district to address employee salaries and benefits.

“We’ve got to pay them what they deserve,” he said.

DePaul was on the verge of tears after the directors voted and offered “a big fat kiss” for each of them.

Rather than ask Modoc to repay the money, the board directed staff to look into creating a long-term fund to help small, struggling fairs, perhaps by asking for donations during the annual San Diego County Fair.

 

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