The City of Petaluma and representatives from the Sonoma-Marin Fair sat down last week to begin negotiating terms of a possible new lease of the downtown fairgrounds property on East Washington Street. The fair's current 50-year lease is set to expire in 2023.

"We talked with the city manager and (the economic development manager) on Thursday (May 16), " said Sonoma-Marin Fair CEO Pat Conklin. "We're going to see what we can come up with and how it will affect everyone."

The fair, which has occupied the 60-acre parcel in the middle of town since 1936, has been urging the city to extend its current lease for several years. Fair CEO Pat Conklin has repeatedly said that the fair's expiring lease has prevented them from making capital improvements to the property because lenders do not want to loan money to an entity that has an uncertain future.

Currently, the $1-per-year lease gives the fair sole discretion over what the grounds are used for — something city officials this year said they do not want to continue.

"Obviously, this is an old lease," said City Manager John Brown in March. "The council is interested in maintaining its control over the use of the property and having final say in the use of the land."

For five days every summer, the Sonoma-Marin Fair draws people from across the county with its food vendors, rides, livestock shows and other attractions. But for the remainder of the year, city officials say the prime real estate does not live up to its economic potential. An airport shuttle service, a charter school, a pre-school, the Petaluma Speedway, Skip Dominguez Auctions and a coffee drive-thru lease portions of the property year-round.

Petaluma's fairgrounds started out on inexpensive land at the edge of town, like most fairgrounds, but ended up in the center of Petaluma as development grew up around them. Now, their location makes them a valuable, untapped resource.

In the past, the fair board has been adamant that it needs the entire site for its annual event. But recently, as the clock ticked closer to the end of the lease and as the need for improvements on the property intensified, the fair board said it understood the need for the city to exert more control over the property.

"The fair needs to occupy that space during fair time, but the other 360 days of the year, other entities can be down there," said Fair Board President James Burleson in March. "The board has realized that we have to be great partners and tenants with the city."

Both the city and the fair have expressed a desire to involve the public in any future development of the fairgrounds site. In the spring, the fair board held a meeting seeking public input on what citizens would like to see at the location. Brown said that deciding the long-term fate of the fairgrounds would take time and community input.

"It's important to get the lease renewed so that the fair can make their improvements, and so that the city can move on to addressing the future of the grounds," Brown said.

The city and fair representatives plan to continue talks over the summer. Brown hopes to have a new lease contract to present to the City Council by the end of the year.