Many local residents are hoping that the Sonoma Marin Fair, a beloved and unmistakable Petaluma tradition, will continue well into the future by the fairgrounds renewing its lease with the city.
A renewal process would bring many opportunities to rethink and improve the 60-acre fairgrounds — something that city leaders and fair organizers have emphasized as a high priority — as well as determine whether the $1 per year lease should be increased. But talks of extending the lease, which expires in 2024, have taken a back seat to the city's budget crisis and other pressing issues, and there is no sign that a new lease will be signed soon.
"We haven't had any recent discussions about the lease, but it's not just because of the budget," said City Manager John Brown. "The City Council annually reviews its goals and priorities. At this point, there is no immediate need to get the issue resolved.
"The City Council will review the lease situation at the beginning of the next calendar year, and could move it up the priority list."
Talks on a lease extension have been put off for several years. The last formal talks between city leaders and fair management happened in 2008, with a proposal to extend the lease to 2060. A master plan was also discussed to divide the property into specified uses.
"We need to restart those discussions," said Harris. "It's a tremendous opportunity in the middle of town."
Councilmember Teresa Barrett noted that the property already is divided up for some specified uses, but contends that a master plan will be needed when planning future use.
"Doing things piecemeal is a bad way to go about planning. I think that there should be a master plan that reflects a long-term view," she said.
The city of Petaluma has leased the fairgrounds to fair organizers for $1 per year since 1937. That low amount is meant to reflect the public benefit that the fair provides and its partnership with the city. But some people, including some City Council members, feel that the amount is outdated and should be reexamined.
"We need to look at that dollar figure, and negotiate a higher amount," said Councilmember Mike Harris.
"I'm opposed to continuing the $1 lease because I feel that it is outdated," said Barrett. "But I in no way oppose the fair — I want it to continue. I want to help keep it alive and increase its popularity."
The fairgrounds area, in the center of town, is a priority in the city's plan for economic development.
While many Petalumans particularly look forward to the fair, which runs from June 22 to 26 this year, events are held at the fairgrounds year round. Fair officials sublease parts of the property to car shows, motorcycle shows, circuses, the Airport Express bus stop and more.
"The fair has been a part of Petaluma for a long time, and represents many things to many different people. And the year-round activities at the fairgrounds raise money for nonprofit groups," said Pat Conklin, CEO of the Sonoma-Marin Fair.
Ideas have been floated to build retail or other amenities on parts of the land while leaving the area used for the fair untouched.
Residents previously proposed opening the land for development, a new police station or even a minor league baseball team.