Del Mar Fairgrounds officials to consider financial aspects of upgrades

By Joe Tash

Del Mar Fairgrounds officials agreed to begin looking at the financial aspects of replacing the property’s aging exhibit halls, and also to consider additional uses for the fairgrounds’ under-used satellite wagering facility, at their meeting on Wednesday, April 10.

The state-owned fairgrounds, which hosts the annual San Diego County Fair and a major horse racing meet each summer, is operated by the 22nd District Agricultural Association, whose board of directors is appointed by the governor.

The board voted unanimously to form a sub-committee to select a financial consultant to study how much the district could afford to pay to replace its existing exhibit halls, and how it could pay for the construction. Replacement of the exhibit halls is a major element of the 22nd DAA’s recently updated master plan.

“I think it’s important for us to get this started,” said board president Adam Day, conceding that the entire process of replacing the exhibit halls will take a number of years.

Late last year, the district settled a lawsuit that challenged its master plan on environmental grounds filed by the cities of Del Mar and Solana Beach and the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority. The district is working on a final settlement of a similar lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club.

The 22nd DAA’s website lists six exhibit halls on the property – the three largest are O’Brien Hall at 68,680 square feet; Exhibit Hall at 55,200 square feet; and Bing Crosby Hall at 31,900 square feet.

Day said after the meeting that hiring a financial consultant is the first step toward replacing the halls. The district could consider selling bonds to finance construction, or other financing vehicles, he said.

The 22nd DAA would then conduct a public process to determine the design, location and parking for the new exhibit space.

The fairgrounds is currently missing opportunities to host events because its exhibit space is split into a number of buildings, Day said. A new facility would add only a small amount of total exhibit space, but it would be configured in a way that it could be combined to host large events.

At Day’s request, the board also voted to direct staff to begin soliciting ideas from business for use of the fairgrounds’ satellite wagering center, called the Surfside Race Place. The 90,000-square-foot facility was completed in 1991.

Over the past 20 years, attendance at the facility has declined steadily, similar to a trend at satellite wagering centers across the country, said a report on the board’s agenda.

During the 1990s, daily attendance averaged 2,900, but attendance now hovers between 300 and 350 people daily, said the agenda report.

At Thursday’s board meeting, fairgrounds general manager Tim Fennell said the building can accommodate up to 5,000 people per day.

“That’s a beautiful facility that’s totally under-used,” said board member David Watson.

In seeking board support for looking into other possible uses for the satellite wagering center, Day said a portion of the building would have to be maintained for off-track betting, and alternate uses would have to be consistent with the fairgrounds’ mission of supporting agriculture and entertainment opportunities for the public.

By working with a private company, Day said, the district might be able to generate additional revenue that can be used to maintain and enhance the fairgrounds.

District staff was directed to seek ideas and proposals from businesses, and then report back to the board. No timeline for set for returning with proposals.

In a related action, the board approved a five-year contract with Sleep Train for naming rights to O’Brien Hall. Under the agreement, the company will pay $1.3 million in annual installments. In return, signage stating “sponsored by Sleep Train” will be installed at the exhibit hall.

The building will also retain its traditional name of O’Brien Hall, which has been in place since the hall’s construction in 1980.

The building was named after longtime Turf Club member and Del Mar resident Pat O’Brien, in recognition of his community service.

The fairgrounds will also work with Sleep Train on a “Foster Kids Day at the Fair” promotion, said a staff report.