City moves to take over management of Petaluma fairgrounds
There was a full house at the Petaluma City Hall chambers late into Monday night, as City Council members approved recommendations from city staff that will ultimately take property management control from the state and give it to the city.
In a late-night unanimous vote deep into their Oct. 24 meeting, City Council members moved forward with a resolution that calls for city staff to transition the 55-acre property’s maintenance, management and subleasing agreements from out of the hands of the state-run 4th District Agricultural Association – which has leased the property from the city for $1 per year for the past 50 years – and into their own.
The vote also came an amendment, put forth by Mayor Teresa Barrett, promising that at least 20 acres of the property will be dedicated to the annual five-day Sonoma-Marin Fair, and to ensure space for evacuation center purposes.
Although labeled a “Fairgrounds Workshop,“ the meeting agenda was revised Friday afternoon to include an actionable resolution – a move members of the 4th District Agricultural Association, including its CEO Tawny Tesconi, found hard to understand.
“As a person who’s been in public service most of my life, I was disappointed in the outcome of Monday night, but I was even more disappointed in the process,” she told the Argus-Courier.
In an email, Petaluma City Manager Peggy Flynn said the resolution added Friday “follows the staff report and does not provide anything additional, with the exception of allowing Council to take action and/or revise the principles as needed to give staff high-level direction to guide efforts on the Fairgrounds.”
Tesconi, whose experience running fairgrounds includes managing Petaluma’s Sonoma-Marin Fair from 1999 to 2007 as well as managing Sonoma County Fair, said she was also disappointed by council members’ seeming disregard for the report developed through Healthy Democracy, a nonprofit which – to the DAA’s surprise at the time – was hired by the city to assemble a panel of locals through a lottery process, who then met multiple times to hash out their own suggested future uses of the fairgrounds.
“So much of what Healthy Democracy is promoting for the site is what 4th District Agricultural Association does,” Tesconi said.
The Monday night meeting, which lasted almost six hours, included two rounds of public comment, where a long line of residents expressed gratitude for the panelists’ work but also a mix of support and disapproval for the staff recommendation to shift control of the property over to the city. One resident referred to a one-meeting decision on such a major issue as a “slap to all the community.”
Michael Parks, a Sonoma-Marin Fair board member, said city leadership never really tried to sit down with the fair board to discuss the many ways their interests overlap.
“Bring us to the table,” he said. “We are the solution, not the problem. We have resources that you don’t have,” including county and state support and a potential $20 million resiliency fund.
In an email to the Argus-Courier, Assistant City Manager Brian Cochran responded that “While the Fair Board may have been (and hopefully still is) interested in negotiating what a successor agreement might look like, City staff did not have direction from the City Council in terms of what to negotiate or any sort of negotiation parameters that would have assisted those negotiations. In Monday’s agenda item, staff sought and received clear Council direction on how they hope to move forward.”
He added, “With the Council direction we received Monday night, staff can now engage with the Fair Board to craft a successor agreement that works for all parties within the parameters that Council set forth.”
The council resolution, which provided “guiding principles” to city staff, came as the fairgrounds’ current lease is set to expire at the end of 2023. After discussions had stagnated for years on how a future lease would go forward, the city in late February hired Healthy Democracy, whose efforts with the panelists resulted in three possible visions for how the property could be utilized for generations to come. These were presented formally for the first time Monday.
The first vision focused on a total transformation of the property to feature a new civic center and outdoor amphitheater, as well as trees in the parking lot near the swim center and a year-round farmers market in the same area, active transportation features, and roundabouts at street intersections.
The second vision focused on keeping current uses in place, and emphasized keeping the swim center, skate park and library areas as is. This vision also called for a new multi-use amphitheater in the fairgrounds.