Del Mar to explore buying fairgrounds

The city of Del Mar is beginning to investigate the possibility of buying the Del Mar Fairgrounds, should the state move forward with selling the property.

The City Council agreed July 13 to send a letter to the governor’s office expressing interest in buying the property, the bulk of which lies within the city’s limits. This will give the city access to the fairgrounds’ financial information so it can determine if it is feasible to make a bid.

“It makes perfect sense for us to take a good hard look at it,” Councilman Carl Hilliard said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed selling the fairgrounds, and several other state-owned properties, as a way to help fill the state’s $26 billion budget gap. But after pushback from the public, he agreed that the property should be sold with its current uses intact, including the San Diego County Fair and horse racing.

Hilliard attended a recent news conference given by the governor.

“He felt the locals, as he called us, would be better positioned and better situated to operate the property,” Hilliard said.

Several council members said they would like the property to remain in the public domain rather than transfer to private ownership.

“We want to be right there at the table, looking after our interests, making that statement very firmly, ‘Who better than us to be public stewards of this property?’” Mayor Crystal Crawford said.

The letter is the first step in a process that is still very much in the air. The council said there are many questions to be answered, such as: Is the state actually going to sell the property? Will the Legislature approve the sale? Is it financially doable for the city to make an offer?

Initial estimates for the property with its current uses have been about

$350 million. However, a more firm and detailed appraisal of the property is expected as early as Aug. 1, Crawford said.

After that is released, staff plan to conduct an analysis to determine if the city could make an offer and report their findings to the council.

“The most important thing is we have to protect Del Mar’s interests,” City Manager Karen Brust said.

The few residents who spoke at the meeting suggested that the city collect more information and explore all options.

Resident Jacqueline Winterer did not think the city would be able to buy the property on its own.

“We are too small for that,” Winterer said. “You should not act alone, you should look for friends in the community who have the same values we have.”

Fairgrounds General Manager Tim Fennell said dealing with Sacramento has been a challenge, but wasn’t sure if local control would be better.

“My preference would be to stay under state control with more autonomy to run more like a business with less bureaucracy,” Fennell said. “If that could happen under another form of ownership, I’d be in favor of it.”