Fears of sale remain

Fair board will form group to monitor status

By Jonathan Horn

Contributor

Despite being formally taken off the sales table by the state of California, the 22nd District Agricultural Association board of directors is still wary they will lose control of the Del Mar Fairgrounds to a private owner.

At its public meeting on Tuesday, the council unanimously approved a task force to monitor the property’s standing as a public entity. If sold, the fairgrounds, the events it hosts and horse racing could disappear. The task force comes the same day it was announced that a record of nearly 1.3 million people attended this summer’s San Diego County Fair.

“I know we’re officially off the chopping block, but we’re not,” said Del Mar Fairgrounds CEO and General Manager Tim Fennell. “The reality of it is the state’s in dire trouble, and I think next year quite frankly the state’s going to be in a worse position than they are now, and so I think we’re going to have that target on our backs.”

Last month, a spokeswoman for California Senator Dennis Hollingsworth said it would be “ridiculous to sell a property that is making money for the state.” But Fair Operations Committee Chairman Barry Nussbaum, who introduced the idea of the task force, said a private deal is still very possible.

“I would not be surprised if we end up on a [for sale] list in the future,” he said, adding that the board should be proactive in protecting those who benefit most from access to the facilities.

Nussbaum and board President Kelly Burt agreed to be the council’s representatives on the task force, which has yet to be formed.

Assuming the fairgrounds are still open for public use next summer, preliminary dates for the 2010 San Diego County Fair have been set. The event will begin on June 11, and run through July 5, the Monday after July Fourth weekend.

Fennell said ticket deals and the recession might have contributed to the overwhelming attendance at this year’s fair. Some examples were the $2 tickets on a certain Tuesday; season passes at $22 for the 22-day fair; and a stimulus promotion, in which those who are unemployed got in free.

“People may not be traveling as much, and we encourage them to come here, have your fair-cation,” Fennell said. “You’re a family of four, maybe you go to Lake Tahoe every year, but maybe this year you can’t afford it because maybe mom got laid off or dad got laid off or I might get laid off, so I’ve got to watch my expenses. I can still have my vacation at the fair.”

Some early indicators for the success of horseracing season were also discussed. Despite high attendance, including a record 44,900 on opening day, the total handle, or bets, is down 16 percent from last year. However, other revenue streams from outside of California are up. For instance, xpressbet.com, an Internet gambling service, already has 12,000 participants and has generated $500,000. The target is $1 million, and board members were optimistic they would achieve this.

“It all depends on what you net,” Fennell said, adding that food, tickets, programs and outside business all add up to form the bottom line.

Cigarette and marijuana smoking was the main subject during the public comment portion of the meeting. Both individuals and representatives of anti-smoking advocacy groups spoke of too much second-hand smoke at the fair, children being exposed, and a lack of security enforcement against smoking at concerts.


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