As the purchase agreement proposed by Facilities Management West to buy the Orange County Fairgrounds for $96 million is debated in Sacramento, Costa Mesa city leaders are turning their attention toward the negotiation of a ground lease with their new tenants.
And that process could make last month’s shotgun wedding between FMW and Costa Mesa seem like a lawn party, for both sides. City Manager Alan Roeder said he is already preparing for the negotiations and knows they will be tough.
The biggest challenge facing city leaders is how to enable FMW to turn a profit without introducing uses at the fairgrounds that don’t erode the neighbors’ quality of life.
Those two goals aren’t always likely to be compatible.
Roeder has already admitted in the past that, “I have no question that they [FMW] will probably bring things forward that we won’t like.”
Yet Roeder said the public isn’t without any influence.
“They still have to live within the initiative. It’s the controlling element here,” he said. And there’s the general plan as well as city ordinances.
“All of those will be in effect,” Roeder said. “And every thing that happens there is subject to the normal development requirements, including full compliance with CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act).”
So what are the likely friction points?
“They have talked about a conference center, as opposed to a convention center,” Roeder said of current plans that might trigger city approval processes.
On weekends, the site is pretty well used currently, Roeder said.
While the site is already heavily used on weekends, the new owners will likely push for more weekday usage, with plans such as farmers markets and more interaction between events.
Yet, Roeder acknowledges, “they don’t have a business plan yet.”
Another likely area of contention will probably be the operation of events at the Pacific Amphitheatre on the property.
FMW acknowledges that the future revenues of the amphitheater are a question mark, but they hope to hike utilization. Meanwhile, city officials are worried about noise issues that will likely come with increased usage. Roeder noted there could be talk of putting a cover over the amphitheatre.
A host of planning issues also will come into play on the lease because the city’s memorandum of understanding with FMW is fairly broad.
Roeder said that planning staffers are putting together a list of planning regulations that would affect the site in its current form.
City Council members had talked about approving a specific plan for the site — which would more specifically govern what uses could be contemplated on the site — than a general plan amendment.
That got sidetracked when city officials instead opted for a ballot initiative that was successful in last month’s primary election. However, the issue is still up for discussion.
Another central question facing the fairgrounds development is whether it would be processed as one application, a master plan, or project by project.
“It’s going to be a long process,” Roeder said.
Regardless of how the issues are hammered out, they are a far cry from those that came into play when Roeder first showed up in 1973.
“Back then, we were discussing a go-cart track and a driving range,” he said.
— NORBERTO SANTANA, JR.