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Fairgrounds board pursues $10 million public market



The directors of the Sonoma County Fairgrounds Thursday gave their go-ahead to negotiate with a developer who hopes to build a $10 million public market on a parking lot at the fairgrounds.

The board’s unanimous vote came just two days after Boise developer Mark Rivers appeared before the board to outline plans to build Sonoma MarketHall, a 68,000-square-foot building that would provide room for up to 140 vendors selling fresh farm produce, prepared foods and food-related products.

“This appears to be a viable project,” said fair director Ross Liscum, part of an ad hoc committee assigned the task Thursday to firm up details of River’s project before the board considers sending the project on to the Board of Supervisors for review.

“The idea is to get a little nitty-gritty on the details,” Liscum said.

Rivers said he hopes to have the building under construction by October and open by April 2011.

“Hopefully we can move along in a relatively easy and expeditious fashion,” Rivers told the board.

But his hope of a fast-track process could be complicated by a tug-of-war over the project between Sonoma County, which owns the parking lot located across Brookwood Avenue from the fairgrounds, and the city of Santa Rosa, the city in which the property is located.

Both the city and county contend the project falls under their own planning jurisdictions.

Santa Rosa’s Community Development Director Chuck Regalia said usually projects planned by other governmental agencies, including the controversial Mendocino Avenue parking garage built a few years ago by Santa Rosa Junior College, would fall under that governmental agency’s sole jurisdiction.

Regalia said because the Sonoma MarketHall is a privately developed project proposed on county property, he believes the right to review it falls to the city of Santa Rosa.

“We are looking into that issue. There may be an exemption for fair property,” he said.

Mayor Susan Gorin said the city has informed the county “if it is a private developer, even though it’s on county land, it is in the city’s purview.”

While jurisdiction may come down to a legal ruling, Gorin said, “As long as the public interest is met in making sure the appropriate infrastructure is developed around the site — curbs, gutters, sidewalks, bike lanes and transit accessibility — I am not concerned who does the processing.”

Fair board members agreed to move ahead with the project, but some expressed worry about the long-term viability of the project, particularly in light of plans for a Sonoma County Food and Wine Center to be part of an overall Railroad Square development that would include retail and residential uses along with development of a commuter train station.

Attorney John Mackie, chairman of the volunteer organization moving ahead with the food and wine center, said while he came to Thursday’s board meeting “neither to oppose or support” River’s project, he questioned its viability.

Citing feasibility studies done on the food and wine center project, a project finally moving forward after years of debate, Mackie told Rivers “140 tenants is way more than you can find.”

Liscum, however, said River’s proposal, expected to generate more than 100 jobs and much-needed sales tax revenue for the city, “is a win-win.”

“It’s a win for the fairgrounds and a win for the community,” he said.

“The only pitfall is if he falls flat on his face in two years,” Liscum said, echoing the sentiments of some who worried the only thing left behind then would be a 68,000-square-foot empty building.

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