Deeper Shades of Gray at the OC Fairgrounds

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Monday, August 9, 2010 | This year’s Orange County Fair is shaping up to be the most attended in history. Per capita spending is up, and concert events are selling out.

“They’re saying yes to the fair,” Steve Beazley, chief executive of the Orange County Fair and Events Center, said in an interview last week. “And the sale hasn’t distracted their fun.”

Meanwhile, the sale of the Orange County Fairgrounds seems just as distracted as ever.

More than a year has passed since Orange County officialdom jumped at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s idea to sell the 150-acre site in Costa Mesa. Yet it remains a confusing proposition with multiple private and public sector players vying for the property and no real sense of who’s actually in charge or who will be running things next year.

On Tuesday, Costa Mesa city officials will update the public on a purchase and sales agreement adopted in June by the City Council — authorizing a $96 million sale of the fairgrounds to a private company called Facilities Management West.

And legislation that would dissolve the state’s 32nd Agricultural District (which holds the OC Fair franchise) is also beginning its trek through the state capital in search of the needed two-thirds vote. Costa Mesa council members will be talking about their approach to the legislation in closed session on Tuesday.

The Facilities Management West group is in the process of doing its onsite due diligence studies to assess the fair’s accounting and infrastructure.

But the fair’s Board of Directors, which is in charge of operating the fair, is pushing back, having voted, 6-1, to back a plan that would call on Orange County residents to resist a private sale and instead back a revenue-sharing plan with Sacramento.

Beazly said the majority of the board (board member David Padilla voted against the plan to fight the sale) understands they are confronting the governor. But their loyalty to Orange County forces the issue, he said.

“They are appointed by the governor to serve the people of Orange County. So where does their allegiance lie?” Beazley said last week after the vote.

“In the end, what they’re saying is we serve the people of Orange County,” Beazley said.

Yet the revenue-sharing plan touted by the Fair Board isn’t intended to shoot down Facilities Management West or the city of Costa Mesa, he said.

“This plan is not a way to derail the sale [to FMW],” Beazley said. “It doesn’t have that purpose in mind. It has the mind to obviate all sales.”

The Fair Board’s idea is to give the governor what he wants: $96 million in profit-sharing payments of at least $2.5 million annually over the next few decades. But it also allows the state to keep the fair in public hands. And it also envisions private sector partnerships, a more limited version of what is envisioned by FMW and others.

“The fair is a feminine thing. And femininity does not do either/or. It explores the gray,” he said.

Indeed, a lot about the Fairgrounds remains a gray area, with much continuing to happen away from the spotlight of public debate and consideration.

For example, Beazley says he is in a tough position allowing FMW certain access to the fair’s employees because a purchase and sale agreement hasn’t been finalized by the state. And he’s not sure what kind of information he should be sharing with a company that may or may not be buying the franchise.

“I’ve received no right of entry request from the state or DGS [Department of General Services],” Beazley said. “It’s a complex judgment call.”

“Introducing this company with no mechanism could be confusing,” Beazley said, especially during the fair.

“I don’t want to come off as a roadblock, but I’ve been hired by this board to run this business.”

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