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The Orange County Fairgrounds’ weekend swap meet and hundreds of vendors who make a living there are in limbo, as the company controlling their spaces, Spectra, has stalled on reopening while trying to renegotiate its contract with the state-run fair agency.
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And as the governor-appointed Fair Board kicked a decision on the contract for the swap meet — known officially as the OC Market Place — from the next meeting to the next, vendors watched other swap meets open back up due to easing COVID-19 restrictions while their ability to reopen hung on Spectra’s demands.
At stake is the livelihood of some 200 to 400 merchants, even though the swap meet lease comprises a relatively small revenue stream for the fairgrounds compared to the annual 23-day Orange County Fair, which was cancelled this year in light of COVID-19. Murkier still is precisely what Spectra aims to gain from the contract renegotiations.
After delaying a decision on the renegotiations yet again at its last meeting June 25, the Fair Board is expected to take it up at the body’s next meeting July 23.
“It’s like a boxing ring, where we have the Fair Board in one corner, Spectra is in the other, no one’s talking to each other, and hundred of vendors are hanging by a thread,” said Jeanine Robbins, who with her husband Mike has run their shop Paradise Cigars out of the Market Place since 1979. “It’s so frustrating.”
Greg Silva, one of the larger vendors who sells clothing at the swap meet, said he’s down about $100,000 in sales since the Market Place closed due to public health restrictions around COVID-19, and some of his suppliers are still waiting to be paid.
“It’s been a difficult time, stressful on the family,” he said.
Spectra has operated the Market Place since 2016, taking it over from previous owner Tel Phil Enterprises, which had operated the swap meet for over 40 years and at times maintained a tense relationship with the fairgrounds.
The Philadelphia-based company is a subsidiary of Comcast Corp., and despite its best efforts to reinvigorate the swap meet to its heyday, fairgrounds staff have for years called the market’s current business model “unsustainable.”
In a May 26 email to the swap meet’s vendors, Spectra’s general manager overseeing the Market Place, Adela Generally, said the company was attempting to renegotiate its contract with the fairgrounds to operate the Market Place.
Representatives at Spectra haven’t publicly said what exactly they’re seeking from the renegotiations. The company’s vice president of new business development, Nick Nicora, didn’t respond to repeated email and phone requests seeking comment. But Generally in her email to vendors said the goal was “to work toward a new agreement that would mutually benefit all partners.”
Despite being permitted to reopen under public health guidelines, Spectra has held out on reopening the swap meet pending its contract renegotiation attempts.
“Unfortunately, our reopening plans cannot be put into place until we reach agreement with the OC Fair & Event Center staff and board with a new agreement and a comprehensive plan for safety and success,” Generally said in the email.
Robbins empathized with the company that leases her and her husband’s vendor space, saying all of this would be resolved if the fairgrounds agreed to renegotiate and that for an agency with more than $50 million in reserves “to take a hardline position, is just unreasonable.”
Spectra pays more than $2 million to lease the parking lot, on top of an additional $4.8 million in food and beverage commissions and $100,000 for capital projects around the Market Place annually. Even with the small slice of revenue the Market Place generates for the fair, Robbins said “it’s better for the fairgrounds to make some money than no money — it could be open now.”
Silva, on the other hand, said he is frustrated with Spectra, saying he and the other vendors wouldn’t be in this position had it not been for the company’s attempt to terminate the contract.
Spectra first notified the fairgrounds of its intent to terminate the Market Place contract in a May 20 letter, citing a potential breach of contract with the swap meet’s COVID-19 closure. Once the swap meet was permitted under public health guidelines to reopen, however, Spectra stated its intention to keep the swap meet closed pending contract renegotiations.
“I don’t place blame on the Fair Board … Spectra is the one that could have opened already, and I would’ve assumed all they had to do is get approval from health officials and they could’ve opened,” Silva said. “Other swap meets are open, people are shopping, wearing masks and all open doing business. Meanwhile, here we are still waiting.”
He expressed frustration with what he feels is the general message Spectra’s sending to the vendors as the process drags on, which, in Silva’s view, is “fend for yourselves.”
Fairgrounds staff estimate that pre-COVID-19, the swap meet on the weekends would draw somewhere between 200 and 400 vendors. “In its heyday,” Michele Richards, OC Fair chief executive officer, said during a June 11 meeting, “the Market Place had well over 2,000 merchants.”
Fair officials, like newly-appointed Board Director Nicholas Kovacevich and Ashleigh Aitken, throughout June have placed the ball in Spectra’s court.
“Certainly, at least from my perspective, we would like to see the Market Place model continue to evolve and improve,” Kovacevich said during the board’s June 11 meeting. “Ultimately, again, it’s up to the tenant to be able to do that.”
“We are asking them to reopen. We are asking them to be a partner, not just with the fair, but with the swap meet community,” said Aitken, whose father Wylie is a Voice of OC board member.
Directors like Kovacevich and officials at the fairgrounds have refused to comment on Spectra’s request citing legal circumstances around the contract renegotiations.
Some watchdogs of the fairground’s spending are questioning whether the swap meet’s business model even works anymore.
“Unfortunately, the OC Market Place reflects a 50-year-old business model that appears to be at the end of its natural life-cycle,” reads a June 8 letter to the fairgrounds from Vincent Pollmeier and his fairgrounds watchdog group, Friends and Neighbors of the Orange County Fairgrounds.
“The advent of eBay, the Amazon Marketplace, Rakuten, Etsy, and others, as well as the rise of other swap-meets in Orange County, has contributed to an inexorable decline in the OC Market Place for more than a decade,” his letter adds, calling the swap meet “a shadow of what it once was.”
Spectra has for years shown signs of strain in its attempts to reinvigorate the swap meet back to its heyday, and in 2019 sought an annual $600,000 from the Fair Board to cope with a longtime decline in business and attendance.
Supporters of the request at the time like Robbins, the vendor, said the money would be crucial to the promotion of a swap meet beset by publicity and financial problems over the last several years and full of vendors who depend on their shops as a source of income.
Critics of the request saw it as a potential gift of state money. The board tabled the matter.
Pollmeier’s spouse, Reggie Mundekis — also one of the closest observers of the agency’s spending of state dollars — said the swap meet has “stayed the same, which is one of the reasons it’s falling behind the times.”
“While I feel for the vendors who rely on the swap meet for income, we need to find ways to make it more successful or to find a new business model for it,” she said, pointing to outdoor swap meets that are “competitive and niche-driven” like the one at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo or the Sugar Plum Festival in Buena Park.
“Successful outdoor marketplaces narrow their focus and try to stay away from commodity goods and go to niche products, handmade goods or more upscale products,” Mundekis said.
Still, local vendors maintain that the OC Market Place has been an iconic mainstay in the county for decades.
“There really is no other swap meet like the OC Fairgrounds,” said Kim Packham, whose family has run the Packham Co. selling officially licensed sports merchandise at the swap meet since 1976.
“It’s very iconic for one thing, multigenerational families go out there,” she said. “I had customers whose kids are adults now bringing their kids by.”
She added that many vendors won’t have long before they’re forced to leave for another venue.
“If we’re not open before the holidays, I think sadly vendors will have to come up with plan B,” she said.
Silva, the clothing seller, said he and many vendors would “rather know if we’re not coming back today, than just being pushed along.”
“We don’t want any more ‘maybe,’” he said. “We want something definite.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.