By Joe Tash
County supervisors unanimously agreed Oct. 31 to study the possibility of the county taking on a leadership role at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, but no one knows yet what such a partnership might look like, or the financial impacts of a new model for running the state-owned property.
Details should become clearer over the next few months, as county staff and elected officials talk to a variety of people around the county with an interest in the fairgrounds, and also examine the facility’s books to determine its financial health.
In their 5-0 motion, supervisors directed the county’s chief administrative officer to study a potential partnership between the county and the 22nd District Agricultural Association — the entity that now runs the fairgrounds for the state — to share operational oversight of the 340-acre property at the mouth of the San Dieguito River.
Along with the San Diego County Fair and an annual horse racing meet, the fairgrounds hosts hundreds of events each year from weddings to roller derby matches to home and garden shows.
Supervisor Ron Roberts, who brought the issue before the board with Supervisor Greg Cox, said he expects a report to come back to the board in January, but even then it will not likely be a final agreement, but a “first cut” in examining the issues of a county-22nd DAA partnership.
“Let’s make sure there’s not a poison pill to prevent us from getting deeper in the discussions,” Roberts said.
One key concern is whether the county would be taking on any financial liabilities, such as unpaid bills, through an agreement with the fairgrounds, Roberts said. His concern was echoed by other supervisors at last week’s meeting.
But the board did seem supportive of the general idea of the county joining forces with the fairgrounds.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about this proposal. In my opinion, it could be very helpful to the 22nd DAA and operations there to have some county guidance,” said Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, whose 3rd District includes the fairgrounds.
“I just think we ought to be a part of it. We ought to have a voice there,” said Supervisor Bill Horn.
Adam Day, president of the 22nd DAA board, initiated the discussion in an Oct. 12 letter to Roberts.
“As you may know Governor Brown is encouraging state District Agricultural Associations to explore options for governance changes with the goal of bringing the oversight of DAA’s to a local level and providing more transparency and involvement to the communities they serve,” Day wrote.
In an interview, Day said he has been in discussions with the governor’s office for the past several months about such a partnership. Various models have been considered, but he said it would be premature to discuss them publicly.
However, he said the goals of a county-22nd DAA partnership would include more local control of the fairgrounds, increased transparency in its operations, protection of workers at the fairgrounds, who are state employees, and flexibility and freedom from state bureaucracy and red tape. Currently, the 22nd DAA board is appointed by the governor.
He insisted that the county would not incur any financial or legal liability. “We’re confident that can be achieved,” he said.
A partnership with the county would ensure more local control of the fairgrounds because it represents the entire San Diego County region and its residents, Day said.
“I’m almost as excited today as on opening day of the fair and the races,” said Tim Fennell, CEO and general manager of the fairgrounds. “I see this as a wonderful opportunity that will sustain the future of the fairgrounds for my grandkids and my grandkids’ grandkids.”
The issue of who will own and operate the fairgrounds came to the fore in 2010 when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reached a tentative deal with the city of Del Mar to sell the property to the city.
Under Gov. Jerry Brown, that option has been taken off the table.
“We have no intention of selling the (Del Mar) Fairgrounds,” said Jim Houston, deputy secretary for legislative and public engagement with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which oversees the state’s 52 fairgrounds and its agricultural districts.
The state does want fairgrounds to enhance their relevance and sustainability in the communities they serve, Houston said. Local control and support of fairgrounds became more important this year as the state cut all funding to fairgrounds throughout California due to budget constraints.
The 22nd DAA is in a different situation because it did not receive any state money, even before this year’s budget cuts, and is considered the most financially successful fairground in California. But encouraging more local control is still a priority, Houston said.
“We’re very encouraged that the county voted unanimously to engage in this. We appreciate Mr. Day’s leadership and the rest of the directors in pursuing this partnership, and want to make sure we all work together to form something that is for the betterment of the community,” Houston said.
Houston said he does not anticipate the dissolution of the current 22nd DAA board. One possibility of a new governance model might be Antelope Valley, where a joint powers authority was formed between that area’s DAA and the city of Lancaster.
A JPA was also one of the potential models suggested by Del Mar Mayor Carl Hilliard.
Del Mar has a close interest in the operation of the fairgrounds, since the majority of the property lies within its city limits. The city has long had a contentious relationship with the fairgrounds, and last year joined with Solana Beach and the San Diego River Park JPA in suing the 22nd DAA over its master plan.
Hilliard and Councilman Terry Sinnott spoke in favor of the partnership idea at the Board of Supervisors meeting, but wanted to make sure that the city’s interests are represented in any agreement.
“It only makes sense that a representative of Del Mar is part of the decision-making body that is proposed. That’s something we would encourage the supervisors to consider,” Sinnott said.
Coming up with a new governance model will be a complex task with lots of moving parts, said Hilliard, but it can be done.
“All of the parties are going to have to come to the table if it’s going to work. And the county is key to bringing everybody together,” Hilliard said.
Roberts said there is a “significant level of interest” by the Board of Supervisors in pursuing a partnership with the 22nd DAA.
“What is the future of this resource going to be and how is it going to serve all of us?” Roberts said. “Let’s look at this as a region, put out heads together, and have an open political process, where we bring a lot of different ideas into one coherent plan.”