OC Fairground Sale Officially Dead

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Friday, July 15, 2011 | On opening day of the Orange County Fair, Gov. Jerry Brown officially removed the for-sale sign from the fairgrounds, thus ending a more than yearlong quest by a private company to acquire the iconic 150-acre property in Costa Mesa.

“The Department of General Services is not selling the fairgrounds now,” said spokeswoman Gretchen Zeagler Thursday in a terse response to a Voice of OC inquiry. The department made a public announcement on Friday.

Brown’s decision follows a ruling last month by the 4th District Court of Appeal that the sale to Newport Beach-based Facilities Management West “could not go forward” because the bidding process set up by the Schwarzenegger administration was flawed.

The case challenging the sale was brought by Assemblyman Jose Solorio (D-Anaheim), state Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), the Orange County Fair Preservation Society and Katrina Foley, a Newport-Mesa Unified School District trustee.

“Today’s statement is a tremendous victory for the families of Orange County and for sound public policy,” said Wylie Aitken, a Voice of OC board member who along with his daughter, Ashleigh Aitken, represented the plaintiffs.

“The responsibility now shifts to us,” Aitken added, referring to the residents of Orange County. “It is incumbent on the community to support the fair and buy lots of cotton candy and ride the Ferris wheel.”

Guy Lemmon, spokesman for Facilities Management West, struck a bitter tone in his reaction to Brown’s decision.

“We are extremely disappointed that the misguided legal issues raised by the court will not be fully pursued,” said Lemmon.

FMW spent large sums over the past two years — including the hiring of fair insiders like Becky Bailey Findley and Republican consultants like California Strategies chief Gary Hunt — to lobby for and defend the sale after it was challenged by a coalition of activists and fairgrounds vendors.

“Apparently, the governor — who represented [General Services] as attorney general during the entire process — now disagrees and is refusing to support the work of the professionals who conducted this sale,” Lemmon said. “This decision will further discourage businesses to work with the state as the state attempts to address the fiscal crisis.”

Yet just as the two-year saga of the Orange County Fairgrounds sale ends, focus on the property’s future remains intense.

Statewide there is now more scrutiny on how fairs operate, as well as more discussion about revenue sharing and the lack of transparency at local fair boards.

Many of the activists who have opposed the sale to FMW say they will continue to closely watch Orange County Fair Board members, whose efforts triggered the sale that was eventually championed by Schwarzenegger and a group of GOP insiders.

Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association and the latest Brown appointment to the Fair Board, has publicly stated his main focus on the board will be greater transparency.

In his statement, Aitken noted: “It is also time to look at the future and focus on community involvement, not profit; management for the people; and multiple uses of the facilities to make it even more an open public jewel to all.”

Zeigler said the governor is leaving his options open and “will be evaluating the pros and cons of selling state properties in the coming months.”

Solorio is pursuing legislation (strongly opposed by FMW and Costa Mesa Mayor Gary Monahan) that would set up a revenue sharing arrangement between the local fair and the state.

Transparency is also a high priority for state Correa, who said he is “looking at getting together a set of legislators to review how best to manage not only the Orange County Fair but the state’s entire fair system.

“How do you maximize the recreational opportunities for communities and balance those with the need to raise revenues? … They’re not inconsistent,” Correa said.

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosantana. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.


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