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Petaluma Fairgrounds analysis sparks fear among Sonoma-Marin Fair supporters

Ahead of the planned restart of negotiations and public outreach over the future of the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, Petaluma officials have asked the fair operator to lay bare the agency’s books, requesting everything from master facilities lists and employee rosters to prospective plans for a smaller fair footprint.

The letter, sent July 21 by Petaluma City Manager Peggy Flynn, serves as the city’s first official response to a scathing March 18 missive from the 4th District Agricultural Association, which has sought to extend its 50-year lease of the city-owned fairgrounds property past Dec. 31, 2023.

In that communique, and in the months since, the association has groused about the city’s decision to put off negotiations and public outreach, and the board’s newly minted nonprofit foundation has launched a public perception campaign complete with sign-wielding, honking caravans parading through downtown Petaluma.

City officials have sought to tamp down the furor over the future of the 55-acre, centrally located plot. It’s a theme that carried through in Flynn’s response last month.

“I wanted to reassure you and the Fair Board that we are committed to working with you to help you preserve your mission and promote and showcase agriculture in Petaluma and host the annual fair,” the letter read, in part. “It is essential that we have a working knowledge of what is occurring on the ground in terms of the state of the property and an understanding of the (agency’s) short and long-term plans for a viable fair.”

But the extent of the records requested caught fair officials off-guard, said Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds CEO Allison Keaney, who added that her small staff would struggle to assemble all of the required documentation.

Petaluma has requested a facility assessment, including a list of needed improvements; audited financial statements; copies of all lease agreements and contracts related to the property; a list of employee positions, duties and compensation; disclosures related to potential hazards; and a description of modified fair exhibits that happened this year.

The letter also seeks information about the state’s responsibilities and obligations for staffing; the status and timing of alternative governance structures currently being explored; a description of the footprint of past emergency response uses; and any plans the agency is exploring to produce a smaller fair.

The request comes as a Petaluma-hired contractor is working to complete an environmental study, and as the city is set to launch an assessment of each building on the site through a third-party facilities planning company. Petaluma also hired a consultant to guide negotiations between the city and the fairgrounds operator. Combined, the city has agreed to spend up to $95,000 as part of those efforts, according to contracts provided to the Argus-Courier.

The city’s own request for records has sparked trepidation among fair supporters who have read between the lines to confirm long-held fears that the city would seek to upend fairgrounds use and tradition.

“The request for plans on how we will decrease our footprint tells us that our fair will be changing drastically,” Keaney said. “We currently use all of the property for the fair as it is produced right now, so we will have to have some hard discussions about what we eliminate that won’t drastically impact our attendance. But in reality, we can’t really plan until we know how much space will be left for us.”

Mike Healy, the senior incumbent on Petaluma City Council, serves on the city’s ad-hoc committee related to ongoing study of the fairgrounds’ future. Healy said he’s not supportive of placing housing or city facilities on the site – both of which have been floated in past discussions – but he is interested in ensuring the city has a viable annual fair.

“Their current model doesn’t look particularly sustainable,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to get our arms around.”

Before COVID-19 struck, the Sonoma-Marin Fair maintained steady attendance and revenue numbers, regularly topping 60,000 attendees and more than $600,000 in revenue for the annual, five-day fair, according to numbers provided by Keaney.

But the 4th District Agricultural Association, which has paid the city $1 per year to lease the property since 1973, relies on a variety of subleases – a school, a race track, a coffee shop and more – to survive financially.

Still, the property has long been a safe harbor in emergencies, and fair supporters tout the agency’s $500,000 annual maintenance budget and $12 million per year economic impact as indicators of a successful operation.

City officials have underlined housing, hospitality, event center space, commercial space, sports fields, parks and a civic center as possibilities, none of which would preclude some sort of presence for the fair – albeit a smaller one.

Both city leaders and fairgrounds supporters have said there’s a need to compromise, but the two sides have not relaunched negotiations since coronavirus upended prior efforts.

Tawny Tesconi, a former Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds CEO and the current CEO of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said there’s a need for an emergency evacuation center, a need for a year-round event center and a need for an annual county fair.

“I think there’s ways to get there, but I think it’s going to take everybody sitting at the table,” Tesconi said.

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at tyler.silvy@arguscourier.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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