Fairgrounds changes expected to be announced Tuesday

Tim Fennell, general manager of the Del Mar Fairgrounds, at the fairgrounds earlier this year.
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Administration struggles to stop financial spiral accelerated by COVID-19

Del Mar Fairgrounds officials held a special executive session Monday, Aug. 24, to discuss the employment of General Manager Tim Fennell and have scheduled an all-hands virtual meeting for Tuesday, Aug. 25, as the state-owned property continues its COVID-caused downward financial spiral.

Some people have suggested that Fennell, who has led the fairgrounds for 27 years, may be ready to retire. He could not be reached Monday, Aug. 24, and a spokeswoman said Fennell and other top staffers remained, though nearly 60 percent of the 157 full-timers have been told to plan for layoffs in October.

“We have nothing further to report at this time,” said Richard Valdez, president of the board of directors of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the fairgrounds. He said there could be an announcement after the board’s Sept. 15 public meeting.

Almost all the fairgrounds revenue comes from large gatherings, the biggest of which is the annual month-long San Diego County Fair. All large events including the fair have been canceled since March because of the coronavirus pandemic, though the annual horse-racing season is underway now with no spectators in the stands.

Del Mar officials told the board of directors in June they expect revenue for the year to be down by $65 million by the end of the summer, or 92 percent of what was budgeted for the year.

Fairgrounds across the United States are in trouble without the ability to host their signature events, but Del Mar is in worse shape than most. The 22nd DAA has virtually no reserves and has significant debts in loans and bonds for money spent to upgrade and expand its facilities.

Among Fennell’s critics is Pam Slater-Price, a Del Mar resident and former five-term member of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

“He’s the type of guy who wanted to turn that into a major fair like they have in the Midwest,” she said. “He just kept building it up and building it up. It was always the next project.”

When Fennell started working at the Del Mar Fair, as it was called then, it had the 14th largest attendance in the United States. Last year, it was fourth in the U.S. and first in California.

“The other thing he seemed to do was build up a big labor force,” said Slater-Price.

With nearly all full-time employees in a union, their pensions and benefit costs added to the difficulties of the downturn.

Also, the big special events added at the fairgrounds such as music concerts brought problems such as traffic and noise for residents living nearby in Solana Beach and Del Mar.

“A lot of people feel he’s run the thing into the ground,” Slater-Price said.

Still, both Del Mar and Solana Beach have benefited financially from the fairgrounds over the years.

An independent study in 2016 showed that together the two cities receive about $1.2 million a year in direct revenues from the fairgrounds such as sales and hotel taxes, after factoring in costs like extra law enforcement services.

— Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune