It’s a debate that’s circled the Orange County Fair for years:
Should this iconic, 150-acre state property be a Disneyland-esque venture and commercial event center?
Or would it be better for Orange County’s fairgrounds to serve more as a modest, local community reflection — a callback to the region’s farming heritage while also showcasing what’s now become a diverse county with an array of different communities and cultures?
That question returns to the spotlight, and comes before the fair’s Governor-appointed Board of Directors this week, in two ways:
An effort to “diversify” the OC Fair now faces an existential crisis. Meanwhile the overhead possibility of some California fairgrounds shedding their state control is raising concern of privatization and, in turn, reduced public involvement in the decision-making around these pieces of land that are supposed to serve their communities.
For example, many fairgrounds also act as disaster response areas, food banks, and more recently, COVID-19 testing sites.
Now state officials may be setting the stage for some to repeal their status as a state agency (or “Agricultural District Association”) as ways of adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial hardships.
The California Dept. of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) — which oversees many of these fairgrounds, including Orange County’s — in a Nov. 6 memo pointed its network of fairs to a set of 10-year-old reports that outline ideas like transitioning fairgrounds into third party organizations and entities.
The letter also invites the state’s fairgrounds to a series of workshops on ways they can shift away from their current models. Read it here.
The pandemic has created restrictions on the very public gatherings that fairs rely on for revenue, forcing them to go virtual for less profit. For some in California, earnings this year were barely or not enough to break even.
Finding other “operating models,” according to CDFA’s Nov. 6 memo, could pave the way for new and more sustainable fairgrounds business.
But to some, like OC Fair watchdog Reggie Mundekis, the state memo rings echoes of the controversial near-sale and privatization of the OC Fairgrounds roughly a decade ago, stopped by former Gov. Jerry Brown in response to vocal protests by community activists.
The letter from CDFA is attached to the OC Fair Board’s meeting agenda for Thursday, but OC Fair spokeswoman Terry Moore said “there are no plans to pursue alternative operating models, nor have there been discussions about this at the board level, at the (OC Fair).”
At the state level, CDFA spokesman Steve Lyle said in a written response to Voice of OC questions: “There is not a decision at this time about privatizing fairgrounds.”
This region’s fair is a financial goliath among the state’s gallery of agricultural districts, sitting comfortably on tens of millions in cash reserves and not quite experiencing a dire budgetary crisis on the level that some of California’s smaller ones face.
Though Mundekis expressed worry that the conversation about shifting the structure of the OC Fair and its government isn’t that far out of orbit as the agency’s financial circumstances can always change.
For example, “unless there’s a COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 in time to be able to have a physical fair that year, we too may be looking at financial problems coming up,” Mundekis warned, pointing at the OC Fair’s revenue shortfalls this year as a result of going virtual over the summer. “You can only live on reserves for so long.”
Anaheim resident and OC Fair observer Mike Robbins, asked for his take on CDFA’s letter, said there would be much desirability for newly-privatized fairgrounds properties among third parties.
“They’re big acreage. They’re valuable. Possibilities for development,” said Robbins, who with his wife Jeanine operates a cigar shop on the fairgrounds’ weekend swap meet. “People want those properties.”
And while some of those state reports that CDFA references outline recommendations for fairs keeping their public-facing board meetings and transparency measures, Mundekis cast doubt on those fairs ever maintaining appropriate levels of public involvement:
“We’re talking about massive amounts of public land, which is valuable and attracts millions of dollars a year in contracts.”
And on the OC Fair Board’s agenda for this week is the possible disbanding of its diversity task force, formed by a divided board in June this year amid a frenzy of social justice movements that took over Orange County’s streets at unprecedented levels over the summer.
The committee — which came on the heels of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, a Black man — was pushed by fair board directors Ashleigh Aitken, whose father Wylie is the chair of Voice of OC’s board of directors, and Barbera Bagneris, the fair board’s only Black woman.
But the committee’s exact purpose had yet to become clear after its formation.
Newly-appointed fair board director Nicholas Kovacevich, who was assigned to the diversity committee, requested a set of guidelines and objectives for the task force, saying during one September board meeting:
“We want to make sure that we’re focused on the right areas and initiatives, and we think that with a solidified purpose statement that will help guide the committee.”
Meanwhile, fair observers and community members had long held their own ideas about what diversity at the fair should look like.
Vincent Pollmeier, another OC Fair watchdog and Mundekis’ spouse, during the June meeting said one way to champion diversity would be to contract with more local food and merchandise sellers who reflect Orange County’s nonwhite communities, rather than paying money “out-of-state to largely white-owned corporations and companies in places like Texas and Florida.”
Robbins said the lack of diversity and local representation at the fair also stems from the high cost of vending there, which he said effectively locks locals out in favor of company vendors who can afford it.
“We haven’t seen diversity, and that’s a problem there,” he said.
Representatives at the Western Fairs Association, an industry trade group that represents many of the usual vendors at the OC Fair, didn’t respond to phone and email requests for comment for this story.
The committee was also dragged into the center of backlash against the flying of the fair’s rainbow pride flag, first hoisted at the fairgrounds last year in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.
Many members of the public would call into board meetings over the last several months to criticize the pride flag flying year-round while asking the diversity committee to get others flown as well — like, per one caller’s request in August, a “Little League flag.”
Aitken, responding to Kovacevich’s September request for guidance, explained her push for the committee was the fact that diversity isn’t just about embracing it through flags or statements, “but also bringing in diversity of programming, bringing in maybe different diverse festivals.”
“I know we’ve done — our staff has done — a fantastic job between the Tet Festival and having different groups from Orange County being represented,” she said at that same meeting, voicing a need for “having a larger discussion about what more can we do.”
Yet the task force never seemed to get the entire board’s support. Director Natalie Rubalcava-Garcia, for one, has said much of those diversity efforts could be done by existing committees at the fairgrounds.
For example, she pointed to the fair’s Community Engagement Committee, during the June meeting where she opposed the task force:
“The other thing with the Community Engagement Committee is we have a diverse group of staff who are already dedicated to this project who could probably lend their voice and opinion,” she said before the vote.
The question of what now should become of the fair’s diversity efforts, and what it should look like in the long run, may create a similar split.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.