Del Mar Fairgrounds requests $20 million in emergency aid

The Del Mar Fairgrounds has requested $20 million in financial aid.

The Del Mar Fairgrounds has requested $20 million in financial aid.

(San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Del Mar fair board has asked Gov. Gavin Newsom for $20 million in emergency aid to help cover the loss of revenue from events such as the San Diego County Fair that have been canceled because of the COVID-19 crisis.

“We owe it to the people of San Diego County to make sure that this facility stays viable,” fairgrounds General Manager Tim Fennell said last week. “We are looking at every potential opportunity to make sure we are not left out in the cold.”

The cancellation of the annual fair, which was scheduled for June 5 through July 5 this year, takes away the largest single source of revenue for the fairgrounds. The event attracts more than 1.5 million people and brings in an average of $12 million each year, and more than half of all the income for the fairgrounds.

Horse racing, which usually starts in July, also could be canceled or run without spectators, Fennell said. Either way, it would be another huge financial loss for the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the fairgrounds.

Money could be available to the fairgrounds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, a $2 trillion economic aid package that Congress approved in March.

A spokesman for the governor’s office said Thursday, April 30, the request for financial assistance is being evaluated along with other similar requests from California’s network of fairs.

The state-owned Del Mar Fairgrounds holds hundreds of events year-round on the property, from bridal fairs to home and garden shows.

“With the cancellation of all events over the past two months .... the 22nd DAA’s revenue stream has all but dried up,” states the April 27 letter signed by Fennell, board President Richard Valdez and board Director Lisa Barkett. “Nonetheless, 156 full-time state civil service employees and their benefits remain on the 22nd DAA’s payroll, being paid twice monthly from our devastated reserves.”

The agricultural association depends almost entirely on revenue from the activities at the fairgrounds, unlike other government agencies that have a guaranteed source of income through tax revenue.

The county fair and other large events at the fairgrounds together generate more than 90 percent of the association’s $87 million in annual revenue, states the letter to the governor.

Efforts to mitigate the financial effects of the crisis so far include reducing the temporary and seasonal workforce, terminating service agreements, renegotiating bond debt and streamlining operational expenses, the letter states.

The fairgrounds has earned a little unexpected income, about $70,000 in April, by leasing its parking lots to rental car companies that have sidelined their fleets because of the lack of business during the pandemic.

Still, the inability to host large events, possibly through the summer or longer, will have “a catastrophic effect” on the district’s financial condition, the letter states.

— Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune