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Petaluma weighing future of fairgrounds site

By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sixty prime acres in the middle of Petaluma. Land ripe for revenue-generating development or land to be used to encourage the area’s agricultural base?

Board members of the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds and Event Center are hoping the city-owned but state-governed property can be both.

The city began leasing the land to the Sonoma-Marin Fair district in 1936 for $1 a year. Those lease terms are identical today, with the current, 50-year lease running through 2023.

The Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma. (PD File)

But some would like that to change — for different reasons but the same goal: money.

“It’s a gem of a property right here in the middle of our two counties of Marin and Sonoma,” said new board President James Burleson during a brain-storming session this week about the fair’s sustainability.

The annual five-day summertime fair, with a $1.4 million budget, is break-even financially. The grounds also lease space to a charter school, a preschool, an Airport Express stop, the Petaluma Speedway, Skip Dominguez auctions and a coffee drive-thru hut. The fair and its tenants, including numerous short-term event rentals, each generate about 50 percent of the fair district’s income.

Fair officials have for years sought another long-term extension of the lease, arguing that they need the financial stability to assure financing for improvements to fair buildings and facilities.

In the past several years, the fair broached the topic multiple times with city leaders, but met opposition — and sometimes downright hostility — and nothing changed.

Some city leaders have said the land is so valuable to Petaluma it is irresponsible to extend such a lease for the state.

Mayor David Glass, in a previous term as mayor, said the fair board should start looking for other sites, saying: “They’re like a tenant that’s going to be evicted.”

In ensuing years, the discussion’s tone has become more cooperative.

Glass said he is willing to discuss extending the lease, if it benefits the citizens of Petaluma.

“If we can craft a framework where the city maintains control, city maintains access to the property and the city receives a fair rate of return on city land — under those conditions, maybe we can hammer out a lease extension that would allow the fair to prosper.”

In the past two years, the fair has lost about $173,000 in state fair funds, most of which came from horse-racing revenues shared among all state fairs.

The board has absorbed the cuts through belt-tightening, but is firm about its commitment to serving its mission of showcasing agriculture and regional interests and talents of the community, particularly young people through animal presentations and skills exhibits.

There has been no serious discussion about the fair moving to another site.

Business leaders have suggested a hotel, convention facility or events center be built with a cost- and revenue-sharing agreement between the fair and city.

“We don’t have a place to do conferences and expos,” said Onita Pellegrini, chief executive of the 750-member Petaluma Chamber of Commerce. “With a conference center, we would be able to bring those things in to Petaluma.”

Petaluma’s economic development manager, Ingrid Alverde, called the fairgrounds “a very important economic development opportunity for the city.

“It’s sort of a jewel in the city and we see a lot of opportunities for growth and community benefit,” she said, suggesting a focus on specialty food production and related tourism.

Fair board member Jim Mickelson said those improvements simply aren’t possible without a lease extension from the city.

“We cannot do those big long-term convention center-type projects without time to recoup our investment,” he said.

Councilman Mike Harris said now may be the time to work together to forge a deal that benefits both the city and the fair.

“We need to work collaboratively,” he said. “That’s prime real estate. Everybody wants to see something done there. They have reasons to come to us and we have reasons to go to them.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)





9 Responses to “Petaluma weighing future of fairgrounds site”

  1. Steveguy says:

    Reality dude, I didn’t know the Sonoma County Fairgrounds lost money even if it was a small amount compared. Shame on them.

    However— The fix seems to be to squeeze $$$$$$ from existing vendors and event planners, instead of expanding the amount of events. Like across the street at the Vet’s Building.

    I do know a bit about this, as a former event planner there, and an exhibitor at the county fair.

    The red tape and restrictions harm their ability to make it a truly community event spot, while they get full time work anyway. The food vendors are ready, really.

    It’s all about the cash now, forget togetherness.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  2. Reality Check says:

    While I’m sure Santa Rosa Fairgrounds hosts many popular events, it is one more county special district that loses money each year. This year’s loss is estimated at $600k, small by county standards.

    But the real cost is in lost opportunity. The land is underutilized. Drive by most days and it’s mostly empty. Often there are events, but they take up only a tiny percentage of the fairgrounds. The rest sits empty.

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

  3. Follower says:

    Let’s hire an out of state Construction Company to come in & dig a big hole.

    Then we can get the pockets of some local politician lined when he awards the bid to his brother in law to fill it back up again.

    We do this indefinitely!
    Like the never-ending re-paving project on I-80 through Reno!

    Maybe even get some Federal Funds since it’s “shovel ready”.

    Just think of all the “jobs” it would create.

    We could “do it for the children”!

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  4. Over Easy says:

    How about we build a huge homeless shelter and mental health facilities to serve the counties homeless population?
    Or how about an outdoor gun range for our teachers and first responders to practice at?
    Or how about a HUGE bio fuel generation plant where we could make friendly energy?
    Or how about a county wide illegal immigrant hiring campus where they could be trained to perform local county and city jobs while waiting for contractors.

    Thumb up 9 Thumb down 6

  5. GAJ says:

    The Santa Rosa Fairgrounds are a huge asset to the community.

    The newest event, the Flat Track motorcycle event this past year, was outstanding.

    Petaluma?

    Not so much.

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 5

  6. Snarky says:

    Fairgrounds, including the one in Santa Rosa, are a relic from the past that need to be bulldozed.

    Oh, but wait. That would mean public employees who sit around there half each day doing nothing would have to find some other employment ! Yikes !

    Thumb up 13 Thumb down 29

  7. Valuable property says:

    There are so many uses for this property that are better than a fair for one week a year. Any long-term use of the property should be at market rate.

    Thumb up 16 Thumb down 21

  8. Elephant says:

    Anybody remember a few years ago when then Petaluma City Councilmember Mike O’Brien put a fairgrounds lease renewal at the same $1.00 per year on the City Council consent calendar? He and another councilmember made the request on right before the Friday deadline in hopes that nobody would notice it. Their sneak attack obviously failed and they were hammered mercilessly.

    Then there were the negotiations with a group wanting to replace the racetrack with a baseball park and a minor league baseball team. Two bullies on the fair board made so many outrageous demands that the group pulled out and went to Portland Oregon. That team now brings in well over $1 million annually to them.

    The RUMOR is that these same two on the fair board want a long-term renewal (50-year minimum) on the fairgrounds lease so they can turn around and lease the Regency people an easement through the fairgrounds to connect either East D Street or Jefferson Street straight through to the Target shopping center. Now that’s a story, PD.

    Thumb up 23 Thumb down 6

  9. James Bennett says:

    Hmmm…
    A large site for Smart Growth next to the “Transportation Corridor”,
    OR
    support local citizens and small business.

    Great site for a big farmer’s market.

    Thumb up 31 Thumb down 10

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