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Supervisors Vote To Explore Local Partnership For Del Mar Fairgrounds

Aired 10/31/12 on KPBS News.

The Del Mar Fairgrounds are owned by the state of California, but today the San Diego County Supervisors will explore ways to have more local control.

Aerial view of the Del Mar Fairgrounds
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Above: Aerial view of the Del Mar Fairgrounds

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously today to explore potential partnerships with the state organization that operates the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which could lead to increased local oversight of the facility.

Ron Roberts and Greg Cox, the board's chairman and vice chairman, asked county staff to report back in two months.

Back in 2010, there was talk of the tiny city of Del Mar buying the Del Mar Fairgrounds from the state of California to help the state budget. The city was afraid of being overwhelmed by plans to build a big hotel on the coastal site and wanted more local control.

Del Mar’s annual budget is less than a quarter of the annual budget of the fairgrounds, so not surprisingly, that idea didn’t work out. But the governor appointed a new board that has been looking at how to make management more transparent and in tune with the local community.

The fairgrounds are run by the state’s 22nd District Agricultural Association, now headed by President Adam Day. Under his leadership, the board has reached a settlement with critics, who had filed lawsuits over the fairgrounds' use of the environmentally-sensitive lands in the San Dieguito River Valley.

The board also came under fire for allowing employees to cash out thousands of dollars worth of unused vacation time, in violation of state rules. It was time for a management overhaul.

Day said the governor’s office encouraged the board to approach San Diego County supervisors to discuss a partnership.

“Increasing the transparency we operate under," Day said, “freeing our operations from burdensome regulations at the state level, and really to be more responsive to local input, local feedback and local governance.”

Day said the Del Mar Fairgrounds' annual budget is $90 million, and, unlike many other local fairgrounds, does not depend on taxpayer dollars at all.

“This would not cost the county any money," he said, “and it would not expose them to any legal risk.”

County staff call the fairgrounds a regional asset and recommend a partnership that could remove the risk of it being used to help balance the state budget in the future.

When the idea of selling the fairgrounds came up two years ago, County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, who represented Del Mar, was not interested in the option to buy the land.

But under this proposal, the land would remain state property.

The association's financial success means the county would not take on any extra financial burdens in asserting control over the facility, according to the two supervisors. The county could also ensure the future of the fairgrounds amid the state's budget crisis, they said.

They said more local oversight could also ensure the future of the facility.

"This is an asset we've been using, so I think we should have a voice there,'' Supervisor Bill Horn said.

The supervisors noted that Gov. Jerry Brown is exploring options to shift all District Agricultural Associations to local control.

Day said he has been in discussions with the governor's office and doesn't expect state interference with any plan to shift authority over the fairgrounds.

The association could pave the way toward finding a new model that would benefit rural county fairs all over California, Day said.

In other board action today, the supervisors withdrew a proposal to designate Pauma Valley as a "colonia,'' a Spanish term referring to rural settlements along the U.S.-Mexico border, which would put it in a better position to qualify for federal infrastructure grants.

The board also voted unanimously to adopt a resolution declaring that structures in unincorporated areas damaged in last month's roughly 2,500-acre Shockey fire near Boulevard were eligible for permit fee waivers.

"This will give them added assistance to get their feet back on the ground and back into their homes,'' Supervisor Dianne Jacob said.

California Senator Christine Kehoe, who originally wrote legislation designed to move control of the Fairground from the state to the local level, said many good things could come out of a partnership between the County and the Fair Board, as long as it represents regional and environmental organizations.

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