By Joe Tash
Attendees at a city council workshop Wednesday, March 9, had plenty of questions and suggestions about Del Mar’s proposed $120 million purchase of the state-owned Del Mar Fairgrounds.
The questions included whether gun shows could be prohibited from the fairgrounds if the sale goes through, and why Del Mar would have only one representative on the nine-member board that would oversee fairground operations.
The meeting in council chambers was held in an informal style, with members of the public sitting around a series of six circular tables along with council members, city staff, union representatives and officials with outside agencies. In all, about 50 people attended the session.
The meeting began with updates from Del Mar Mayor Don Mosier and other officials on the status of the proposed deal. Attendees then spent about an hour holding discussions in smaller groups, before the results of those discussions were shared with the entire room.
“Since we’re putting up all the money and effort, why do we only get one seat on the board? A lot of people are saying that in the community,” said Del Mar resident Bud Emerson, who reported on the discussion at one of the six tables.
Emerson also questioned whether activities found “quite objectionable in our town,” could be prohibited at the fairgrounds. While he did not specifically mention gun shows, he drew a laugh from the crowd when he stated, “I’m not armed.”
Another issue raised in his table’s discussion, said Emerson, was that residents want to weigh in on the sale before it is finalized, whether through an election, or a survey sent out in utility bills.
“It’s a strong tradition in this town,” Emerson said. “When we make a big decision, we all decide. Everybody has a say.”
Other issues raised during the workshop included ensuring that any shortfalls in the fairgrounds’ operating budget are not made up from the city’s general fund; requiring that the city of Del Mar have control over land-use decisions regarding the fairgrounds property; and protecting the rights of fairgrounds employees during the transition from state to city ownership.
Wayne Dernetz, a Del Mar resident and attorney who helped the city draft the proposed governance model for the purchase, said if the deal does go through, the city would wear three hats: one, as trustee of a “public benefit trust,” a legal document spelling out allowable uses for the property; two, as landlord; and three, as a municipal government with authority to regulate land use and activities at the fairgrounds.
The governance model proposed by Del Mar includes the establishment of the public trust, which requires that the fairgrounds property be used for the public benefit in perpetuity, according to a city staff report prepared for Wednesday’s workshop meeting. The trust would allow such uses as the county fair, horse racing, equestrian shows and events, agricultural expositions, and entertainment, among others.
A nonprofit corporation would be set up to run the daily operations of the fairgrounds, under the direction of a nine-member appointed board, with representative from the cities of Del Mar, Solana Beach and San Diego, the county of San Diego, the San Diego Farm Bureau and the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority, with the three remaining seats to be filled on a rotating basis by the other San Diego County cities.
Currently, a volunteer board appointed by the governor oversees the fairgrounds. The fair board staunchly opposes the sale of the fairgrounds to Del Mar.
Before the sale could go forward, a bill authored by state Sen. Christine Kehoe would have to be passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor. Deanna Spehn, a Kehoe staffer, said at the meeting that Kehoe expects committee hearings to be held on the bill within the next several weeks.
Meanwhile, although the sale was supported by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the new governor, Jerry Brown, has been focused on the state budget and has not yet had a formal briefing on the proposed deal, Spehn said.
“Everything is still in play, the bill is still active,” Spehn said.
The city proposes financing the purchase by selling bonds, leasing the racetrack operations to a group of horse owners, and borrowing a portion of the purchase price from the state.
The city staff report notes that an enterprise fund will be established to pay for fairgrounds operations, and the bonds sold to finance the purchase will be repaid with fairgrounds revenue.
The city has budgeted $200,000 to cover up-front costs associated with the purchase, and so far, some $150,000 has been spent, Mosier said.