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Why Does Del Mar Want to buy a Fairground It Dislikes?

An odd combination of animosity, fear and love drives the push to buy the Del Mar Fairgrounds


It snarls traffic, clogs parking, puts local police and firefighters on edge and fills the air with the fetid smells of, alternately, frying confectionery, sweaty rodeo riders and horse manure.

The Del Mar Fairgrounds is not the ideal neighbor for tony Del Mar. This small, neat community of multimillion-dollar homes and posh restaurants has always had a love-hate relationship with the fairgrounds. Residents love taking their grandchildren to the fair but hate the descent of weapon-toting out-of-towners at the annual gun show. Restaurateurs and salespeople at fancy boutiques love the summer crowds but prefer the racing clique to the fair-going hordes, who are less likely to buy expensive sirloins or designer cocktail dresses.

At first glance, it’s hard to understand why the city of Del Mar would want to purchase the fairgrounds: The proposed sale is a daunting financial deal for the county’s smallest city, and it comes at a time when even Del Mar is feeling the raw economic climate. And why, oh why, would the city want to buy an institution its residents dislike so much?

The answer Is simple: At the core of the city’s proposal is reformation.

Del Martians may not like everything about the fair now, but they certainly don’t want the site turning into a hotel ghetto or a convention center. They don’t like the current gun shows, or the traffic, or the impact on their emergency services, but these are exactly the problems that an owner — as opposed to a neighbor — has the chance to control. For decades, the city has felt it was kept out of the loop by a cabalistic state body. Now it sees a chance to grab the reins and tame the fairgrounds into a more controllable, more acquiescent beast.

The arcanely named 22nd District Agricultural Association has reveled in the fact that it’s immune from any regulation imposed by the city and has parlayed that into an active neglect, says Wayne Dernetz, a former Del Mar city manager who’s been “dealing with those guys for more than 30 years.

“It’s almost as if they’ve taken glee in insulting the city,” he adds.

Del Mar: Straight to the point

The Problem: Residents of the cities of Del Mar and Solana Beach say the fairgrounds have been managed by an archaic state body that is unresponsive to their concerns. And there’s controversy over some of the events held at the facility, especially the annual gun show.

Why Now? In 2009, then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a plan to sell several state-owned office buildings and the fairgrounds in Del Mar and Orange County to provide a one-off injection of funds into the state budget. The sale wasn’t finalized before Schwarzenegger left office, but several players are still pushing for the Del Mar sale to go ahead.

The Players: The fairgrounds are owned by the state of California and managed by the 22nd District Agricultural Association, a nine-member group appointed by the governor. The city councils of Del Mar and Solana Beach are leading the push to buy the fairgrounds. They are supported by State Senator Christine Kehoe, who has written legislation to allow the sale to go through. All eyes are on Governor Jerry Brown, who hasn’t yet said whether he’ll revive Schwarzenegger’s plan.

The Money: The current proposed price is $120 million, but financing is still unclear. Del Mar has floated the idea of issuing bonds and could also accept as much as $50 million from a group of wealthy horse owners in exchange for the rights to run racing at the facility.

In April 2009, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed selling the Del Mar Fairgrounds, along with several state-owned office buildings and the Orange County Fairgrounds, to raise money to help plug California’s budget. State Senator Christine Kehoe has been working on a bill that would allow the sale but has been delayed by Sacramento’s budget mess.

Complicating matters, Governor Jerry Brown, who inherited the issue from his predecessor and could choose to veto Kehoe’s bill, has been silent on the matter since taking office. All signs from Sacramento show he has no intention of dealing with this issue anytime soon, and there’s no indication whether Brown wants to take the same route as Schwarzenegger. This stalemate has given both sides plenty of time to make their case.

The group backing the deal — a curious hodgepodge of small-town politicians, environmentalists, business leaders and millionaire horse-owners — says the fairgrounds has been badly managed by well-connected political donors appointed by the governor and who have spent the past few decades picking fights with just about every interest group, politician and gadfly in Del Mar.

For example, the plan to put a condo/hotel on the site would have a big impact on local traffic. But the agricultural association responded by shifting the responsibility for fixing the traffic problem to the city, Dernetz says. The association told the city it would have to build — and pay for — traffic signals at every intersection on Camino del Mar, the main road through town, he says.

“Do you know how much that would cost?” Dernetz asks. “That’s one example of the arrogance and insensitivity they have to the impact of their operations on this community.”

Barry Nussbaum, president of the district’s board of directors, who was first appointed a decade ago, has a tough job. He has to convince locals that the nine-member board, made up primarily of businesspeople from North County (four are from Rancho Santa Fe), has the community’s best interests at heart, even though they were appointed by a governor in Sacramento rather than voted in by county residents.He says the board’s being unfairly branded by a group of naysayers that’s never even tried to work together.

“This is a solution in search of a problem,” Nussbaum says. “It’s a bouncing ball, and each time it bounces and we catch the ball and solve their problem, they throw another ball at us.”

He adds, “There is no problem.”

Del MarTians, Solana Beachers and their leaders have raised five key problems with the way the fair’s run:

  • The Cost of Safety: Del Mar and Solana Beach have to provide police, ambulances and firefighters to the fairgrounds. In return, the cities get a small cut of any gambling revenue from racing events and a slice of the sales tax revenue from other events. The cities argue that their cut doesn’t fully reimburse them for their services.
  • The Track’s Big Dreams: Controversy has raged over the agri­cul­tural association’s plan for the future development of the fair­-
  • grounds, which envisions a 330-room condo/hotel. Environmentalists and local residents are furious about the idea.
  • The Gun Show and More: Though the city of Del Mar has pledged to keep all the events that currently call the fairgrounds home, some residents don’t want it to host certain events. Most controversial is the gun show.
  • The Dollar Bills: Del Mar officials claim that the annual county fair draws sales tax dollars away from restaurants and businesses in the city center because fairgoers are, in the words of City Councilman Marc Filanc, too busy “buying deep-fried Twinkies and butter pats” at the fair — and locals don’t want to venture into town because it’s too crowded.
  • Traffic Jams and Concert Noise: Residents complain that annual events at the fair clog access streets into Del Mar and cause traffic jams on the freeway. Some residents have also complained about the noise from concerts and other events.
  • Nussbaum and his colleagues at the agricultural association recently put out a glossy pamphlet called “Facts vs. Fiction” that addresses many of the arguments made against the body. The pamphlet and Nussbaum make some valid points. For example, the condo/hotel that was originally envisioned as a possible extension of the fairgrounds has now been scrapped and will soon disappear from the master plan. And no matter who owns and operates the Del Mar Fairgrounds, the county fair and races will still attract more than a million visitors and choke local traffic.

The agricultural association says the proposed deal to sell the fairgrounds will probably bankrupt Del Mar, since the city has no experience running the facility or anything like it. And it’s unfair to put the fate of a regional asset in the hands of “one one-thousandth of the population of the county,” as Nussbaum puts it.

The process by which the sale is being put together — via legislation instead of a competitive bidding process — is a bad deal for the state and for the public, who could get much more money for the land than the $120 million the city is offering, Nussbaum says.

Kehoe has portrayed the city’s effort to buy the fairgrounds as a way to keep a regional jewel publicly owned instead of selling it to developers, who would slaver at the chance to build high-rise condominiums overlooking the Pacific.

It is about that. But the proposal is also, at its core, about making the property a more suitable neighbor for Del Mar residents. The city’s leaders say they can rid the fairgrounds of its problems without killing the spirit of the events San Diegans have come to know and love.
If the sale ever goes through, the rest of San Diego County will be watching closely to see if the little city where the turf meets the surf can keep its promise.

A storied history stretches beyond horse racing and carnival rides

1880 San Diego County’s first agricultural fair is organized. Frank Kimball is named president of the board of directors.

1904 The California ­legislature organizes agricultural associations by district. The 22nd District Agricultural ­Association is formed and, to this day, remains the sponsor of the San Diego County Fair.

1916 The fair, hurting financially, is held in buildings constructed for Balboa Park’s Panama-California Exposition.

1933 The legislature passes Proposition 3, legalizing on-track, pari-mutuel wagering on horse races, bringing in much-needed revenue for the fair.

1933 Eight members are appointed to the 22nd District ­Agricultural ­Association Board of ­Directors, and the search for a permanent fair site begins.

1935 The board pur­chases an initial 184 acres of the Del Mar Golf Course land from the South Coast Land Company for $25,000 and announces it will be the fair’s permanent home.

1936 The Works Progress Association grants a half-million dollars to construct fairgrounds on the new site.

1936 La Jolla stockbroker William Quigley and singer-actor Bing Crosby, a resident of Rancho Santa Fe, establish the Del Mar Turf Club, a track for Thoroughbred horse racing.

1936 The San Diego County Fair opens at the new Del Mar location.

1941 The United States goes to war. The fairgrounds become a military training site.

1943 An assembly line is established on the fairgrounds to manufacture parts for the B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber.

1947 Actor Tony Hernandez is hired to play the role of the fair’s mascot, Don Diego. Fair promoters hold the first Fairest of the Fair Pageant.

1984 Hernandez dies, ­having played the ­promotional role of Don Diego for 37 years.

1985 The California Association of Racing Fairs is formed.

1987 The 22nd District ­Agricultural Association begins to offer satellite wagering.

1991 The Surfside Race Place wagering facility is built.

1992-1993 The grandstand is rebuilt.

1995 The first Holiday of Lights parade is held at the racetrack.

1998 A haunted house called The Scream Zone becomes an annual October event at the fairgrounds.

2009 Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ­announces a proposal to put the Del Mar Fairgrounds up for sale.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter for ­voiceofsandiego.org, a nonprofit news organization that partners with San Diego Magazine.

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