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The Equestrian Center at the Orange County Fair and Event Center is likely to stay after members of the Fairgrounds Board of Directors opposed a draft plan to tear down the horse stables.

The plan by Chicago-based C.H. Johnson Consulting Inc. calls for “integration” of the Equestrian Center into the livestock section of the fairgrounds and cutting its size from roughly seven acres to about 1.5 acres.

“This is not integration … this is decimation,” said board member Ashleigh Aitken during Thursday’s meeting. Aitken is part of the Equestrian Center Task Force for the fairgrounds and a candidate for mayor of Anaheim. She also is the daughter of Voice of OC board Chairman Wylie A. Aitken.

After an eight-hour meeting, and no lunch break, the nine-member Fair and Event Center board voted to postpone finalizing specifics of the $170 million draft master plan until its May 24 meeting so members could have more time to study it and suggest changes. There was consensus among board members that the estimated cost of the overall plan for redoing the Fairgrounds is too high and they likely won’t go with the entire plan.

“I am fried and we’re talking about virtually tens of millions of dollars and we got time,” board member Nick Berardino said late into Thursday’s meeting. “We can’t rush this thing.”

Nearly 100 people packed the small boardroom and the lobby at the administration building in the Fairground Costa Mesa parking lot for the eight hour meeting and nearly 40 voiced support for the equestrian center.

Chairwoman Barbara Bagneris asked the Equestrian Task Force to come back with more information about the center before the May meeting. The task force was created in February 2017 to help set the next steps for the Equestrian Center in the incoming master plan. 

“I think at this point in time, that’s (keeping the Equestrian Center) clearly the direction we’re heading in, but the decision will be based, in at least part, on the material that comes back from the equestrian [task force] at the end of the month,” board member Douglas La Belle said in a Friday phone call. La Belle is a former Chino Hills city manager.

La Belle said the board received the draft plan from the consulting group earlier this month, but Thursday was the first time members were able to sit down and discuss the plan with each other.

According to the consulting group’s website, they have worked on fairgrounds plans for Santa Clara County Fairgrounds and the Del Mar Fairgrounds in California.

When called for questions about specifics and who directed the consultants to “repurpose” the Equestrian Center land, Johnson Consulting President Charles Johnson said, “I’m not supposed to talk to the press, it’s a provision we have in the contract.”

However, there is no such restriction in the copy of the Johnson Consulting contract that the Fair and Event Center emailed Friday to Voice of OC.

Johnson’s consulting firm received a contract in October 2016 for a maximum of $194,000. That contract was supposed to end in January and called for the draft master plan to be finished last October.  But in January the contract was extended until the end of 2018 and the maximum payment was increased to $252,000, according to amendments attached to the contract.

Fairgrounds spokeswoman Terry Moore said the consultants recommended the demolition of the Equestrian Center after meetings with board committees, attending full board public meetings and input from the general public and “stakeholders.”

According to the contract, “stakeholders” include the OC Fairground’s executive management, sales and marketing team and local businesses.

The Equestrian Center, which sits on the corner of Arlington Drive and Newport Avenue, would be demolished and paved over for 250 RV parking spots and designated as a “multi-purpose ground space.” The grounds would be used to store carnival equipment, expansion of carnival booths during fair time and have showers and restrooms.

“We are not here to commercialize the operation,” Johnson said during the meeting.

Berardino pressed the consultants on questions about the equestrian center during the master plan presentation.

“Where’s the Equestrian Center in this project? Is it there? Yes or no?” Beradino asked.

The consultants said the 7-acre Equestrian Center wouldn’t be in its present location but would be moved to a 1.5-acre parcel with the livestock.

The current Equestrian Center has stables, horse grooming facilities and riding areas to  teach people how to ride a horse. People can pay to have their horses stabled and have the center’s staff feed the horses and clean the stalls daily.

Bagneris and other board members asked the consultants how much it would cost to renovate the current stables and buildings at the equestrian center. The Johnson Consulting Group said it would cost around $20 million to renovate the buildings they say are unsafe.

Equestrian center users disputed those claims and said the stables and surrounding buildings are in better condition than most of the other equestrian centers around the county.

Berardino said he was skeptical of the consultants’ estimates. He said the past two fairgrounds CEOs and previous consultants claimed the 1942 army barracks building, now being used as the Heroes Hall museum to memorialize veterans, was structurally unsound and couldn’t be moved to the fairgrounds. The museum opened in 2016.

During the move, Berardino said, “we didn’t lose one single ceiling tile.

“So, I don’t know about these estimates,” Berardino, a Marine Corps Vietnam War combat veteran and the former general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, told the consultants.

During Wednesday’s meeting, horse enthusiasts, trainers, riders and stable workers waited for nearly five hours before they got to voice their opposition to the proposed master plan.

When the public comment section started, two of the three consultants left the board room. That move drew the ire of Berardino.

“Get them back in here,” he told staff. “These people (the public) have been waiting for hours and they’re not getting paid … ridiculous.”

Berardino glared at the consultants when they came back in.

UCI professor Aileen Anderson, who is also director of the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center, said she doesn’t believe the cost estimates put forth by the consultants.

“I have 26 laboratories that work in my center — 80,000 square feet of lab space. It was $66 million to construct. I find it really tough to believe that you could come up with a quote that says four barns is going to run $20 million,” Anderson said.

Anderson summed up much of the public’s frustration over the long wait time before public comment and board discussion when she lambasted board members.

“I have been here since 8:30 in the morning, as has most of the individuals here. I can tell you that if I ran, as a public servant at the University of California, a meeting that requires public input like this, I would be out of a job tomorrow. This is embarrassing,” Anderson said around 2:30 p.m. Thursday during public comment.

Bagneris threatened to cut off her microphone after Anderson’s three minutes of public comment ended, but Anderson protested while the crowd cheered her on. She was given another three minutes by another woman speaker so she could finish her statement while Berardino attempted to calm both board members and the public.

This isn’t the first battle at the fairgrounds. In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown ended any potential sale of the 150 acres following his predecessor Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attempted maneuver to sell the land to a private company. The fairgrounds board members are appointed by the governor.

Throughout the attempted sale of the fairgrounds there were legal battles, state lawmaker skirmishes and an appeals court decision that put the brakes on the sale until Brown took it off the auction block.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

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