“Cloud of uncertainty” hangs over fairgrounds

Arnold Schwarzenegger would do best not to mess with E.P. Foster.

That’s the very bold and confident sentiment being shared by more than one local official on the governor’s lumping two weeks ago of the beloved Ventura County Fairgrounds onto a list of several sites proposed for sale.

“There’s a one zillion chance of that happening,” says Ventura City Councilman Brian Brennan.

Schwarzenegger’s aim, according to his announcement on Capitol Hill earlier this month, was to sell off the fairgrounds, along with several other well-known sites across California, using the revenues to balance the troubled state budget.

The auspicious real estate package, according to reports, could net the state up to a billion dollars within five years if all of the preeminently popular properties — mostly places for expositions and other public events — were to cash in.

Among them include San Francisco’s Cow Palace; the Orange County, Del Mar and Cal Expo fairgrounds; San Quentin prison; and Ventura’s own venerable oceanfront fairgrounds.

At a press conference two weeks ago, the governor didn’t iterate when any of them could possibly be sold, where exactly the monies would go, or what the sites would be used for. But it hasn’t stirred those close to the fairgrounds in Ventura, who say that the property isn’t for sale … at least, according to E.P. Foster it isn’t.

“It’d be a difficult notion to sell it,” says Sid White, the City of Ventura’s economic development manager. “It’s always difficult to deal with property that’s under a cloud of uncertainty. That’s what this proposal puts forth.”

It’s well known that Eugene Foster, the 19th Century Ventura pioneer who originally deeded the property, had never intended for his 65 acres of seaside parcel to be used for a private business venture of any kind.

Published in a previous issue of the VCReporter, Foster’s deed stated, “Nothing herein shall be construed as authorizing or permitting demise or permit any private parties or corporations to occupy or use any part of the above-described real property for private gain or advantage or to conduct thereon any private business or enterprise.”

And it’s not just documentation that stands in the way of the fairgrounds’ sale, according to Ventura City Councilman Brian Brennan.

“There’d be so many encumbrances on the project,” says Brennan, who serves as the council liaison to the fairgrounds board of directors. “The realization is the environmental constraints.”

Most obvious is the fairgrounds’ beachfront location within the local coastal zone, which would require the typically difficult-to-obtain approval from the California Coastal Commission, which has normally-stringent guidelines.

But Amanda Fulkerson, a spokeswoman for the State and Consumer Services Agency (SCSA), says Sacramento is serious and moving ahead with its plans.

“If we’ve listed it as a potential (sale), then we believe all the restrictions can be resolved,” she said. “We know it’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to happen fast. But what it does represent is very real funds for the future moving forward.”

Ventura’s fairgrounds, according to Fulkerson, are under control of the 31st District Agricultural Association, a state-controlled entity, valued at $37 million. The state, however, stands to gain upwards of $70 million for the fairgrounds if they receive improvements, or entitlements, to their infrastructure.

Noting that, Fulkerson said that the fairgrounds may still remain, even if the sale goes through, as a revenue generator for the City of Ventura. The fair, she said, could continue by entering partnerships with other developers. Or, portions of the parcel could be sold off to gain equity, while other portions remain.

“Fairs are such a nostalgic issue. But if the Ventura County Fairgrounds were to change ownership, it’s not the end of the issue,” she said. “It doesn’t mean all of it would be sold. Or there’d be some agreement to keep the fair there.

“But our state is in dire need of revenue,” Fulkerson continued. “And the governor needs to think of ways to sell these properties.”

“There are a lot of challenges here,” says Stephen Chambers, executive director of the Western Fairs Association, which oversees the Ventura fairgrounds’ board of directors. “The value of the property is not just about size and location, but what its potential uses are.”

Ventura’s fairgrounds, according to Chambers, were named in a study last year by the state department of food and agriculture, naming the site as one of five generating close to $200 million in revenue for the state. Only one of three coastal fairgrounds on the west coast, the proverbial hit to the pocketbook felt by the departure of the fairgrounds, a prime tourist attraction, would be immense, he said.

“It’s the affordable local facility,” Chambers said. “I think it’d be a huge economic impact.”

Chambers hopes that the governor will recognize this and seek other alternatives.

“We believe once (he) has a chance to examine the fairs, he’ll realize they’re far too valuable,” he said. “The governor’s in a tough spot, trying to put as many creative ideas on the table. We welcome the conversation.”

Carl Morehouse, Ventura city councilman, had proposed a few years back an idea of the fairgrounds serving, as a “multi-modal” transportation hub, which found its way into the city plans.

“The site would not only have a place for the train to stop, but for inter-city and intra-city buses and taxis to pick up people,” said Morehouse about his proposal.

But while that plan may still be far off on the priority list, White, Ventura’s economic development head, said it would be a shame if the fairgrounds sale made those kinds of proposals go away.

“That piece of property has a lot of significant potential for reuse and upgrade. It just needs to be focused,” says White, yet adding, “It’s a little bit scary when the state comes in and the government proposes an uncertain situation.”