Fairgrounds general manager will officially retire Nov. 2

Tim Fennell, CEO of the Del Mar Fairgrounds

Tim Fennell’s retirement announced Aug. 25


Del Mar Fairgrounds CEO and General Manager Tim Fennell, whose retirement was announced Aug. 25, spent his last day in the office Sept. 8 and will officially retire Nov. 2.

Fennell was the fairgrounds’ top employee for more than 27 years and in 2020 his annual salary with benefits was $266,455. The amount of his total payout for accrued leave and holidays was unavailable this week, but he will be collecting those benefits until November.

His retirement comes as the fairgrounds faces what is probably the most difficult financial time in its history. The pandemic forced the cancellation of the San Diego County Fair and other large events since March, and horse races are being run without in-person spectators.

As a result, revenue is expected to be down 90 percent this year for the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the state-owned fairgrounds.

“I had planned to retire following the 2021 Breeders’ Cup; however, given the financial challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic, staff layoffs and the stringent ... funding identified in the governor’s budget ... I felt it is in the best interest of the 22nd DAA to announce my retirement now,” Fennell said in a Sept. 7 letter to fairgrounds employees.

In June, the fairgrounds announced that effective Oct. 15 it will lay off about 60 percent of its full-time staff of 157 year-round employees, or about 90 people.

“One of the most difficult duties I have had to perform in my career was informing you of the impending layoffs,” Fennell said in the Sept. 7 letter. “While no one could have foreseen this pandemic, it is nevertheless a very sobering and difficult experience for all of us.”

The San Diego County Fair grew from the 14th to the fifth-largest fair in North America and the largest in California under Fennell’s leadership. He tripled the number of events within his first three years there, according to his Aug. 21 resignation letter to the fairgrounds board of directors.

During his tenure, the fairgrounds quadrupled its annual gross revenues, invested hundreds of millions of dollars in capital improvements, created tens of thousands of jobs, and produced “a positive economic impact of $650 million annually,” Fennell said in his resignation letter.

However, the focus on growth and capital improvements left the fairgrounds with little in financial reserves when the pandemic struck.

Fennell’s duties were taken over in an interim capacity by Deputy General Manager Carlene Moore, who came to Del Mar in February 2019 after nine years as CEO of the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga.

The 22nd DAA is run by a board of nine directors, all appointed by the governor.

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