By Joe Tash
The board that oversees the state-owned Del Mar Fairgrounds is considering extending a lifeline — consisting of a loan of up to $200,000 and staff support — to a tiny fairgrounds in the northeast corner of California that is in danger of shutting down in the next several months.
Tim Fennell, CEO and general manager of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which oversees the Del Mar Fairgrounds, said he will come up with a plan over the next 30 days to assist the 34th District Agricultural Association, which operates the Modoc County Fairgrounds. The plan would have to be approved by the 22nd DAA Board of Directors, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which oversees all fairgrounds in the state.
The issue arose because the state cut off funding this year to smaller fairgrounds due to budget problems. Modoc County had been receiving about $230,000 per year from the state, or about two thirds of its $355,000 annual operating budget. In contrast, the 22nd DAA’s annual budget, not including costs related to horse racing, is about $60 million, and comes from revenue generated at the fairgrounds.
Dannette E. DePaul, CEO of the Modoc District Fair, attended the 22nd DAA board meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 9, to ask for help from the much larger and better-funded fairgrounds.
DePaul said her fairgrounds has about $200,000 in the bank to pay its bills. “When that money is gone, we will no longer be in existence,” she said. After the meeting, she said the fairgrounds will likely close by next spring without an infusion of cash.
The request from Modoc County arose from a meeting of fair officials from around the state that both DePaul and Fennell attended. One topic of discussion was a sister fair arrangement through which larger fairs could assist smaller, financially troubled fairs in California.
DePaul said her fair board has some ideas for generating revenue, but needs time to put those plans in place.
Fennell told the 22nd DAA board, “They need some help. It’s a great little fair. They need some breathing room.”
“I love a challenge, and the possibility of helping another DAA that’s very strong in agriculture,” Fennell said.
Fennell’s proposal received a mixed reaction from the 22nd DAA board.
“The idea of a fair like ours helping a smaller fair like Modoc County, I find positive and appealing,” if such an arrangement is legal, said director David Watson.
But board president Adam Day expressed reservations.
“We have to be careful of precedent we’re setting,” said Day. “I’m not in favor of handing over a blank check.”
In an interview after the meeting, Day said he would be in favor of establishing a pool with contributions from the state’s larger fairgrounds, which could be dispersed to smaller fairgrounds through an application process.
He said a direct loan to Modoc County would be legal because both the 22nd and 34th DAAs are state agencies. “It’s a policy decision for the board.”
But he noted that, according to Fennell, as many as two dozen smaller fairgrounds may be in jeopardy of closing.
“There’s more than one fair that needs help,” he said.
According to DePaul, Modoc County’s population has shrunk in recent years from more than 13,000 to less than 10,000, due to the closure of gold mining and logging operations. Some 4,500 people attend the four-day county fair, which runs for four days in late August.
Modoc County is remote and rural, relying mostly on agriculture. The area has only one stop light and one business, a Rite-Aid drugstore, she said. The fairgrounds is the social hub of the county, as well as an important venue for many different activities, from firefighter training to agricultural events.
22nd DAA directors were presented Tuesday with a number of letters from Modoc County residents seeking support for their fairgrounds.
One couple wrote, “We do not totally know why you want to help the Modoc Fair, but we appreciate it from the bottom of our hearts.”