The Sonoma-Marin Fair just wrapped up another successful five-day run, reminding us of Petaluma’s longstanding and deeply cherished agricultural heritage and the important economic benefits that local agricultural operations provide this community. But the venerable institution faces an uncertain future as its lease of the fairgrounds property on East Washington Street expires in just six years. It’s long past time for the City of Petaluma and fair officials to agree upon a long term plan for the fair and the city-owned parcel upon which it has operated since 1936.
City Manager John Brown and the fair board have been actively negotiating terms of a new lease for the past few years, but those talks have been behind closed doors with the public kept largely in the dark on the issue. This is unfortunate, since it is Petaluma taxpayers who own the 64-acre parcel in the middle of town.
For many years, fair officials have been urging the city to extend its current lease, noting that its impending expiration in 2023 has prevented them from making necessary capital improvements to the property because lenders do not want to loan money to an entity with a murky future. Plans to add solar panels and make other necessary site improvements cannot be done until there is certainty about the property’s long term use.
More than ten years ago, a joint committee composed of Petaluma City Council and Sonoma-Marin Fair Board members held several closed door meetings over the course of 16 months to discuss plans for the property. The objective: develop a joint use agreement or master plan for the fairgrounds site that would ensure more optimal and efficient public use of the property along with a financially secure fair for years to come.
But negotiations went nowhere, and many years went by with little to no communication between the two parties.
A few years ago, the city council charged Brown with hammering out a long term agreement with fair officials that would achieve both the fair’s objectives and the community’s as spelled out in the city’s general plan. According to Brown, concluding those lease negotiations is among the city council’s top priorities for 2017 and 2018.
To do that will require reconfiguring the fairgrounds property so the fair can continue to thrive while opening up space for new uses, thus enabling the property’s full potential to be achieved. The $1-per-year lease giving the fair sole discretion over what the grounds are used for is an anachronistic arrangement that city officials cannot reasonably continue.
But with effective communication, collaboration and compromise, the potential for success is great. Development of a convention center, for example, could present a tremendous opportunity to sustain the fair’s finances while providing the community with a new and valuable asset. If negotiated sincerely and intelligently, these and other critical objectives — such as improved traffic circulation and appropriate connectivity to the neighboring swim center, library and shopping center — can all be achieved.
The Sonoma-Marin Fair is an important and valuable asset to Petaluma, as is the property it operates upon. We wish city and fair leaders all the best in transparently crafting a plan for the site’s future that better meets the needs of all Petaluma residents while concurrently ensuring the long term viability of the Sonoma-Marin Fair.