Sunday, November 08, 2009

Fairgrounds Sale - A Missed Opportunity

Last week I submitted a long commentary on the proposed Fairgrounds sale to the Daily Pilot, which I hoped would be published on the Forum Page before the meeting scheduled at City Hall tomorrow, Monday, November 9th.

As you Daily Pilot readers already know, there was no Forum Page in the Daily Pilot on Sunday, which is where I had been led to believe my commentary would appear. Apparently, there was a production problem that kept the Forum Page from being produced. I have no expectation that it will appear in the future since the content will be stale following the meeting tomorrow.

So, even though much of what it contains has already appeared here in different segments, I'll provide the full, unedited text of my submission for whatever use you care to make of it. I plan to attend the meeting and will report later.

This issue of the potential sale of the Orange County Fair and Events Center, or whatever the Fair Board is calling it these days, seems to have inflamed the passions of many Costa Mesa officials and residents. With few exceptions, strident voices from many venues cry out to save "our" Fair.

Members of the current Fair Board have formed a new foundation - under curious circumstances, some might say - to place a bid for the Fairgrounds. Although the formation was announced several weeks ago, it seems to be having difficulty filling it's ranks beyond the core of six current Fair Board members, including President Kristina Dodge and uber-politico Dave Ellis. According to a piece Dodge recently wrote on these pages, the foundation wants to "save the Fair".

Costa Mesa Planning Commission Chairman and Daily Pilot columnist Jim Righeimer launched an initiative campaign called "Save the Fair", hoping to garner enough signatures in sufficient time to place on the June, 2010 ballot a measure to guarantee the current Fairgrounds remains as-is regardless any change of ownership.

Another group has been formed with the expressed purpose of having the Fairgrounds taken off the block. They operate under the name of "Derail the Sale".

The City of Costa Mesa, through it's City Council, has stated categorically that they want the Fairgrounds to remain as-is in the future and have instructed the staff to prepare a "Specific Plan" for that 150 acre site to guarantee that no future owner could develop the land. The City has also begun plans to purchase the Fairgrounds outright, to further insure that it remains unsullied by development. And, the City is currently studying the placement of its own initiative on the June ballot to create an unbreakable codification of the status of the Fairgrounds in perpetuity.

The County of Orange has also expressed interest in purchasing the site, perhaps in partnership with Costa Mesa.

All of this activity may give the State pause in it's plan to sell the Fairgrounds. If so, it will take legislative action to overturn the decision and the Governor to approve it. The State has already shown a willingness to play hardball with Costa Mesa, as evidenced by the letter sent from the Real Estate Division of the General Services Department strongly suggesting the City not move forward with any action that would devalue the Fairgrounds, including the Specific Plan.

There has been innuendo that some developer will come in, buy the land on the cheap because of it's restrictive zoning, then "buy" itself a new City Council - it only takes three votes - and have the land re-zoned for whatever project they might have in mind. Who knows, we might be seeing a new auto mall - not likely in this economy - yet another shopping mall or, more in line with the current zoning, a nice hog farm and slaughterhouse. Maybe a Native American tribe will work a land swap and we would end up with a nice neon-laden 24-hour casino across the street from City Hall.

Through all this flurry of activity several points strike me as curious. For example, if, as has been stated by State officials, the goal is to maximize any profits from the sale of the Fairgrounds, why would members of the current Fair Board - appointed by the Governor - even consider acquiring that site to perpetuate the current activities? It seems likely that there is more to their plan than has been divulged. I suspect that some of them might have in mind a nice, tidy retirement nest egg, funded by the segmentation of the Fairgrounds and selling off to a variety of developers large parcels around the perimeter of the actual Fairgrounds - perhaps even the entire Fairgrounds.

Any such plan, of course, would be quashed by Costa Mesa's plan to restrict the Fairgrounds use.

What would happen to the Fair, you ask? Well, just to the south of us you'll find a very large, very available chunk of Orange county currently known as The Great Park. It's also known by other less flattering, but maybe more accurate, names, too. Once the Fairgrounds is sold to another entity, the Fair Board could easily choose to consider other options, like The Great Park. They could even drag along with them the Orange County Marketplace, the Equestrian Center and maybe even have a nice, new amphitheater built, as well. After all, the State would no longer own the land and any purchaser is going to try to find ways to meet whatever financial obligations they incurred to buy the land. Anyone currently using the Fairgrounds could logically expect, at the very least, an increase in rent - most likely a very large increase.

If the Fair leaves, what of the current Fairgrounds? Will we have taken a short-sighted position by locking in the land use forever via the initiative? Will we have painted ourselves into a corner with no way out - even after the paint dries?

I suggest our elected officials take a very deep breath and try to think this process through beyond their initial emotional response to being sandbagged by the State. If The Fair moves on - nothing in life is guaranteed - do we really want to find ourselves stuck with 150 acres of prime real estate with no way to maximize it's value? It seems to me that we may not have really given the consequences of our actions enough thought. The City cannot afford to freeze that land in time, particularly with the tremendous financial challenges we face today.

I'm not suggesting we ignore the sale of the Fairgrounds, but I think we need to manage this process better and do so realistically. At the end of the day, we don't want to be standing there like some rube who just bought the Brooklyn Bridge.

Monday, November 9th, Assemblymen Jose Solorio and Van Tran will co-host a public hearing in the Costa Mesa City Council Chambers at 77 Fair Drive from 9-11:30 a.m. at which a panel of interested parties - state and local elected officials and others with vested interests - will present their views on this issue. Questions and comments will be taken from the audience at the end. Reservations are required. Call John Nam in Solorio's office at 714-939-8469. The meeting will be televised live on Costa Mesa TV, Channel 24 on Time Warner and Channel 99 on ATT's U-verse system. It can also be viewed live via streaming video at the city web site and will be replayed for future viewing. This seems to be a good place to get your questions answered.

In the meantime, the clock is ticking on any kind of an initiative plan and the contract City Attorney, which seems to have been dragging it's feet since last spring when Gary Monahan first asked for a report, has been tasked to present options to the City Council in the very near future. It's time to make your voices heard on this subject.

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