Limited progress in fairground lease negotiations

As the Sonoma-Marin Fair prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary this year, the future of the fair's lease on city-owned land remains in limbo. For more than a year, the two sides have been negotiating over extending the lease, which is set to expire in 2023, but both sides remain tight-lipped about the status of those discussions.

The fair, which has occupied the 63-acre parcel on East Washington Street since 1936, has asked the city to extend its current $1 per year lease, which gives it exclusive control over the land. Former fair CEO Pat Conklin previously said before that without a new lease, the fair board is prevented from making capital improvements to the property, because lenders do not want to loan money to an entity that has an uncertain future.

The Petaluma City Council, however, questioned whether the fair board was making the most out of the economic value of the property, which has the potential to generate revenue through special events. The council identified a desire to seek a new lease in its two-year goals, which prompted negotiations to begin last year. To date, nothing has been reported publicly from those negotiations.

City Manager John Brown said changing the lease has been on the city's radar since he was hired in 2008, but that due to its low-priority status, official negotiations were on the back burner up until last year.

"There have been far more pressing matters that the city has had to deal with than a lease that comes due in the middle of the next decade," Brown said.

These discussions, which Brown said are being conducted in closed session, have taken place on an infrequent basis between the city's negotiating team of Brown and Economic Development Director Ingrid Alverde, and the fair's CEO and representative Joe Barkett.

Brown said the two negotiating teams have not officially met since the fair's new CEO Sarah Cummings, a Penngrove native hired as Conklin's replacement, took office in January.

Brown said the city wants more control over the use of the site, specifically to generate more revenue for Petaluma.

"It's 63 acres of city land that isn't really generating any revenue for the city, and frankly not so much revenue for the fair, either," Brown said.

Brown said that he is not concerned about the length of time the negotiations have required. He said concepts discussed between the two parties include mutually beneficial solutions that allow the fair to operate on the site while the city achieves its economic objectives, and alternative business models that could support the goals of both the city and the fair.

"I don't think, for the importance of the matter, that this is a particularly extended period of time," Brown said. "I think both sides want to make sure that we're doing this carefully and thoughtfully."

Cummings said she's also content with the process of taking "appropriate time to fully discuss the particulars of the negotiations to ensure that the best outcome for the city and fair is reached prior to executing a new contract."

"Discussions like this take time; myself and the fair board are very understanding of that," Cummings wrote in an email.

Brown said the negotiations are not contentious. He and Cummings agreed that both sides are satisfied with the tone of the talks and the progress that's been made thus far.

While he noted that a new lease doesn't need to be completed by the end of the year, Brown said it's important to finish the process sooner rather than later so the fair board can tackle more long-range planning.

"I know it's been important in the past for the fair to get the assurance that it needs, and we want to assist them in that of course," he said.

(Contact Allison Jarrell at allison.jarrell@arguscourier.com)