With what may be its only opportunity, the Del Mar City Council is planning on standing what ground it can next week over the $13.2 million proposal for an indoor arena at the state-run Del Mar Fairgrounds.
The agency that runs the fairgrounds — the 22nd District Agricultural Association (DAA) — has been working on a plan to convert part of its off-track betting center into a 1,900-seat amphitheater capable of hosting 90 events per year.
After approving more than $500,000 for design funds in increments over the past six months, the DAA’s board of directors is poised to give its final OK on May 23. The project timeline has construction wrapping up as early as May 2018.
Fairground managers have for years mulled what to do with the Surfside Race Place, which has seen attendance and revenues dwindle with the rise of online gambling. Its 1991 master plan allows for up to 5,000 daily visitors. Most days draw a few hundred.
The DAA does not believe the project to be subject to the California Environmental Quality Act but has not yet determined if the project will require review by the California Coastal Commission. In that light, the Del Mar City Council is treating the DAA board’s May 23 meeting as the only chance to speak up.
A pair of Del Mar residents blasted the proposal at the city council’s May 15 meeting. Shocked to hear that the DAA is envisioning 90 events per year, Frank Stonebanks did some quick math before stepping to the dais.
“That’s 171,000 people a year. That’s a lot of people,” he said. “There’s no question this state board is trying to ram this project through as fast as possible, without any accountability or any oversight, and frankly I’m just embarrassed by the process. I know they have the power, I know you guys have little say at the end of the day. … This is going to be a big, big impact to the local area, and I don’t think people really have a handle on it in the community. They seem totally unaccountable to anybody and I just frankly cannot believe it. Between this and the pot festival, I don’t know what they’re smoking over there, but something is not going on correctly.”
The other resident, Robin Crabtree, voiced concern about traffic and parking problems. She suggested Del Mar try to form a “united front” with Solana Beach.
However, the Solana Beach City Council will not be taking an official position.
“We have a good relationship with them over there and we’re confident that we can discuss this and work out any issues that may arise,” City Manager Greg Wade said on Tuesday, May 16.
The Del Mar council wasn’t as hopeful Monday night, May 15, with several councilmembers voicing profound apprehension over a lack of clarity on the kinds of events, scant mention of on-site security and a sparsely reasoned business plan.
The proposal also stoked sour memories of the fairgrounds’ short-lived Club Velvet, which opened and was quickly shut down in 2001 after a spate of alcohol- and drug-related arrests.
“It just doesn’t fit in with the community, it doesn’t fit in with the lagoon, it doesn’t fit in with Del Mar,” said Councilman Dave Druker. “Anything we could do to encourage them to put the kibosh on this would be wonderful.”
Mayor Terry Sinnott fretted over the fairgrounds’ lackluster history with other events.
“They don’t know how to manage traffic at the end of an event,” he said. “They proved it with Kaaboo, that the traffic coming out of that facility is all over the place.”
A financial analysis concluded last year expects the venue to generate as much as $2.4 million per year in ticket sales and other revenue. Despite misgivings about the particulars of the business plan, Councilwoman Ellie Haviland thinks the venue will prove to be popular.
“All the more reason I’m concerned there’s nothing in their budget for traffic control” and security, she said.
The council settled on a note of resignation, deciding to try to woo the fairgrounds into a cooperative process on traffic and policing.
“An indoor concert venue that’s properly managed could be one of the least offensive things they could do,” said Councilman Dwight Worden. “They’re a half-million bucks into this project already. They’re not going to back off.”
Sinnott will deliver the council’s message in person next week at the DAA’s May 23 board of directors meeting, which starts at 1:30 p.m. in the fairgrounds board room, at 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd.