Fairgrounds negotiations at a standstill amid finger-pointing
Less than nine months remain until the current lease expires for Petaluma’s Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, at which point a new plan must be in place for the beloved 55-acre grounds located in the heart of town.
And yet, no formal discussions have taken place between city staff and the Sonoma-Marin Fair’s Board of Directors to decide how the property will function from 2024 onward — and both sides are pointing fingers over their failure to negotiate.
Members of the Fair Board said Petaluma city leaders are not cooperating in the decision-making process, which must be concluded by Dec. 31 following an Oct. 24 decision by the City Council to terminate the city’s current lease agreement with the Fair Board.
“The conversations about the Fair not wanting to engage – I think it’s almost backwards,” said Tawny Tesconi, CEO of the Sonoma-Marin Fair, responding to a written commentary by Petaluma’s mayor saying the Fair Board is to blame. “I don’t think that it’s really fair to suggest that the Fair hasn’t tried to sit down and talk.”
But an op-ed by Mayor Kevin McDonnell did exactly that, stating that the process of hammering out the fairgrounds’ future is currently at a standstill due to the Fair Board’s unwillingness to work with city staff.
“The Fair Board have declined the city’s invitation to be part of this reimagining, refusing to take part in negotiations for a new lease agreement that would give the Fair Board the right to continue operating the Marin-Sonoma Fair,” McDonnell wrote in the op-ed, published last week in the Argus-Courier.
The Fair Board governs the 4th District Agricultural Association, the state-funded organization that has managed and leased the property from the city for $1 per year for the past 50 years.
In 2020, an ad hoc committee – made up of City Council members, Fair Board members and one other member of the community – was formed to jump start conversations in working out a new lease agreement. But Michael Parks, president of the Fair Board, said those conversations were put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We get into 2022, things are opening back up again, and our committee gets called to a Friday meeting. We were told on Monday that the City Council will be introducing a new, third-party outreach company, Healthy Democracy from Oregon, to facilitate this, and they have spent $450,000 on it. Not together, not with us,” Parks said.
After the City Council voted to hire Healthy Democracy on Feb. 28, leaders with the group sent out 10,000 invitations to random Petaluma addresses. The group then conducted a lottery, where leaders randomly chose 36 Petalumans to form the advisory panel, which then spent more than 80 hours at Kenilworth Junior High School to meet over five weekends.
In those meetings, tenants and other stakeholders gave their views on how the fairgrounds should be used, then panelists put together a final set of guidelines to bring to the Council as recommendations for the fairgrounds’ future.
“We were pushed to the side,” Parks said about this planning process. “We were not allowed to participate except for in very small, little spots.”
In their final report, which was publicly presented to city leaders on Oct. 24, nearly all panelists not only showed strong support for keeping the annual fair, but also for a year-round farmers’ market, year-round park space, a focus on its agricultural features, securing the property’s status as an evacuation center and more -- a report that Fair Board members said they were happy to see.
Then the meeting took a turn they weren’t happy about, as the Council approved a resolution calling for the property’s maintenance, management and subleasing agreements to be turned over from the 4th District Agricultural Association to the city beginning Jan. 1, 2024.
The resolution came as a shock to many residents, and especially those on the Fair Board, since the meeting’s agenda was first categorized as a study session – which usually means no council action will be taken – and was initially intended to publicly notify the city of the Healthy Democracy group’s report.
But then, on the Friday afternoon before the meeting, the city sent out a notification that the agenda would contain an action item.
“That caught us all off guard,” Tesconi said.
Relations between city staff and the Fair Board did not improve from there.
The Healthy Democracy panelists had also presented a set of goals for the city to consider, including having the 4th DAA “develop a business and financial plan to successfully operate the annual fair.”