The Coast News Group
Plans to transform about half of Surfside Race Place at the Del Mar Fairgrounds into an entertainment venue have been reduced after bids for the full project came in well over budget. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek
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Concert venue plans humming along

DEL MAR — Plans to transform Surfside Race Place into a 1,900-seat concert and entertainment venue are officially under way.

The 22nd District Agricultural Association board of directors, at the Jan. 3 meeting, authorized staff to begin identifying funding sources, hiring a full-time project manager and securing detailed planning, scheduling, budgeting and engineering drawings.

They also agreed to form partnering relationships with concert booking and promotion experts and approved a not-to-exceed $250,000 budget for the preliminary work.

Additionally, the 22nd DAA, which governs the Del Mar Fairgrounds where Surfside is located, will meet with the California Coastal Commission to determine if an amendment to the existing permits for the facility is needed.

“I think this is kind of a milestone day for our efforts to repurpose the satellite facility,” said Director Stephen Shewmaker, who has spearheaded a three-year effort to find a way to make the underused venue profitable.

Surfside Race Place is an approximately 100,000-square-foot satellite wagering facility built in 1991 to accommodate 5,000 people. At one point it attracted about 2,700, but a decrease in offsite betting has resulted in an average daily attendance of about 350.

A study conducted by students from California State University San Marcos and presented at the December meeting concluded that turning Surfside into an entertainment venue would be “highly profitable,” with a return on investment in less than five years, if at least 90 concerts are held annually.

Satellite wagering will continue at the facility.

No one spoke for or against the plans but Director David Watson said the proposal was discussed that morning at the monthly meeting of the Community Relations Committee, which includes representatives from the 22nd DAA, Del Mar and Solana Beach.

Watson said he told everyone the action at the fairgrounds board meeting wasn’t the final vote but the project is moving forward.

Council members expressed concerns about traffic and parking impacts to their neighboring cities.

“Tim (Fennell, fairgrounds general manager) and I have repeated this many, many times,” Watson said. “This building (under) the current permit allows 5,000 per day occupancy. It is nowhere near that number.

“Simply converting a portion of it to an (1,800-) or 1,900-seat concert venue should have no changes in traffic, no changes in parking,” he added. “Considering all the major, huge events that this fairgrounds does, this is just a little blimp on the radar in terms of impacts outside the fairgrounds.”

Watson, a land use attorney, also said it is possible an amendment to the coastal permit will not be necessary because changes to the exterior of the building or the expected occupancy are not proposed and the originally allowed use will continue.

At the Del Mar City Council’s Jan. 3 meeting, Councilman Dave Druker expressed concerns about drug-related problems stemming from a nightclub that operated out of Surfside in late 1999 and early 2000.

The 22nd DAA shut down Club Velvet after 11 months of operation when the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control threatened to pull the fairgrounds’ liquor license because of illegal activity at the club.

Although the Club Velvet problems predate President Russ Penniman’s tenure on the 22nd DAA board, he said he anticipates the envisioned concert venue will “attract a more mature crowd … and its social dynamics will be far different than those of a nightclub.”

Gary Reist, fairgrounds deputy general manager, said it would probably cost upward of $800,000 for detailed architectural drawings.

Shewmaker suggested using the $250,000 “to get to a point where there are clear numbers on what it will take to get the drawings” and then coming back to the board to decide whether to move forward.

The $250,000 is not included in the current budget but Fennell said he is “certain we can find it.”

The board will receive monthly updates on the preliminary planning process, which is expected to take about six months to complete.