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Delayed for years amid coronavirus pandemic, Petaluma fairgrounds discussion kicks off

A years-long debate over the pending fate of Petaluma’s fairgrounds is expected to make some headway next week, as city officials invite residents provide input on uses they feel will best suit the 55-acre. centrally located property.

“The fairgrounds is a special property - and is a big part of our community as well as our local history,” officials said in a Monday email to residents. “As such, we strongly believe the planning of its future use is an effort that should take into account the interests of all Petalumans.”

The meeting comes as the fairgrounds operator’s 50-year lease is set to expire in 2023, leading city officials to begin discussions of a possible re-imagined future for the Sonoma-Marin fairgrounds. It also follows the recent announcement of a new fair CEO, Kristie Hubacker, who came to the 4th District Agricultural Association from Petaluma-based HenHouse Brewing Company.

The prospect of a shift away from the original fairgrounds usage has prompted a wave of pushback from residents who say such a move would be a disruption of Petaluma history and culture.

Still others say, with fair attendance lagging and income stagnant, it’s time for a deep review of fairground uses.

City manager Peggy Flynn said the Tuesday meeting marks the first step of a robust public engagement process envisioned two years ago, before COVID-19 upended those plans.

“Instead of just a city-driven process, we’re looking at a community-driven process,” Flynn said in a Wednesday afternoon phone interview. “It’s going to be really exciting, and it’s going to be really robust, and I believe it’s going to reflect the values of our community and our city.”

Council member D’Lynda Fischer said she hopes the meeting will act as a step forward and will help create more of a sense of unity in the city, instead of prompting more outrage.

“I really hope we can move through that negative energy,” Fischer said in a Tuesday evening phone interview. “And get to what is the best use for this property for everybody in this community, not just certain sectors. It’s the most centrally-located, largest, important piece of property the city owns, and in my mind it’s a symbol of a place that we can all gather.”

Petaluma bought the land, located along East Washington Street, for $20,000 through a voter-approved bond measure in the early 1900s. As part of the purchase, the city promised to use the land for “park purposes.”

But the fairgrounds uses have grown more varied and complex through the years.

Among companies and organizations that lease space at the fairgrounds are Playland Paintball, Happy Hearts Preschool, Live Oak Charter School, Rebuilding Together Petaluma, the Petaluma Speedway, Java Hut, El Roy’s taco truck and Sonoma County Airport Express.

Advocates for keeping the existing structure intact say those organizations could be in jeopardy if the 4th District Agricultural Association, which has for nearly five decades leased the property for $1 per year, loses custody of the grounds.

Matt Sharkey started a “Save the Petaluma Speedway” petition via Change.org when talks started two years ago. The petition has collected more than 10,000 signatures to date.

Sharkey grew up in Sunnyvale and became a dedicated racing fan at the San Jose speedway, which was located on the Santa Clara County fairgrounds property and was later sold due to financial concern in the late 1990s. Sharkey said he’s now trying to keep Petaluma from facing the same fate.

“I understand the concern around the fairgrounds property and the fact that it needs to serve two purposes, which would be provide services for the community but it also needs to be somewhat of a profit center in order to be owned ultimately by the city,” Sharkey said in a Wednesday morning phone interview. “I’m open to all the conversations that are ongoing, (but) I just really want to save the speedway and preserve it.”

Christopher Caputo is Chair of the Petaluma Historic & Cultural Preservation Committee. Caputo plans to attend the upcoming meeting.

“My hope is for a robust and productive conversation that is based on transparency and a thorough presentation of the facts as they stand at this time,” Caputo said in an email.

Council member Fischer, as well as her board colleagues Brian Barnacle, Kevin McDonnell and Mike Healy, said they expect the Tuesday meeting to mainly focus on community input and will give more clarification on the process that will go into what’s ahead.

“This is designed to really get the pulse on the entire community,” Healy said in a Tuesday phone interview.

Healy, the council’s senior incumbent, said he is “hesitant to give up the public parks/fairgrounds use of the site and cannibalize it” and that he feels there are other park-like uses that can be brought onto the property, such as a possible amphitheater. But he added, while that is his personal thought, he looks forward to seeing the overall wishes of the community.

McDonnell emphasized that the timeline will be critical, as the lease’s Dec. 31, 2023, expiration is time-sensitive.

“Getting the public input has to happen quickly,” McDonnell said in a Wednesday morning phone interview. “We have to be focused on inviting and listening to the public.”

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com or 707-521-5208.

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