Belly Up loses contract after fairgrounds opts to handle its own bookings


A dispute over who should get the contract to book acts for a new live music venue at the Del Mar Fairgrounds has prompted fair officials to tackle the task themselves.

The management of the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach initially got the nod for the contract, which would yield a percentage of the revenue of as many as 60 events a year. The 1,869-seat venue is expected to open next spring after a $13 million renovation of the fairgrounds’ Race Place off-track betting facility.

However, another contender for the contract, the operator of the fairgrounds’ annual three-day KAABOO music festival in September, filed a a formal protest of the decision. KAABOO alleged that fairgrounds officials had negotiated with an unfair advantage to Belly Up.

As a result, last week the fair board decided to withdraw the offer to Belly Up and award the contract to nobody. Instead, the fairgrounds will use the same in-house staff members that book hundreds of acts for the annual month-long San Diego County Fair.

“We were caught a little by surprise,” Belly Up representative Chris Goldsmith said Wednesday, Feb. 21. “We are aware of their decision. We are reviewing it and considering a response.”

Both the Belly Up and KAABOO scored high in the fair board’s scoring system for bids on the contract. Music Box of San Diego also submitted a bid, but did not score as high.

Fairgrounds officials stated in an earlier response to the protest that their evaluation of the contract bids was “fair, consistent, objective, unbiased and impartial,” but KAABOO continued to pursue the matter.

The Belly Up opened in 1974 and remains one of the top year-round live music venues in San Diego County, with a maximum capacity of 600 people. The KAABOO festival, held for the third time last year, had a peak crowd of 45,000 people.

The fairgrounds is run by nine members appointed by the state governor to the 22nd District Agricultural Association Board of Directors. The board announced its decision two weeks ago after a closed-session meeting.

“This facility is going to be a great addition to the Fairgrounds and our community, and we’re looking forward to bringing excellent shows to our residents while working with concert promoters to help us in this endeavor,” Tim Fennell, CEO of the Del Mar Fairgrounds, said in a written announcement of the board’s decision.

Del Mar’s off-track betting facility was built in the 1990s to serve as many as 5,000 people a day. However, attendance has steadily declined as the popularity of online gaming and tribal casinos has increased.

Last year’s largest crowd was about 2,500 people who attended on the day of the Kentucky Derby.

All the planned renovations would be inside the existing Race Place building, with no expansion and little change to the exterior of the structure. The off-track betting business would continue, but in a smaller area.

In addition to the concert venue, the renovated facility would include a craft beer-tasting room and a permanent 7,000-square-foot display on the history of beer.

--Phil Diehl is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune