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Community Matters: Solution to Petaluma Fairgrounds quandary in sight

While lingering pandemic restrictions will prevent the full return of the annual Sonoma-Marin Fair later this month, its absence should not distract from the longstanding failure of city and fair officials to reach agreement on a long-range plan for the centrally located, city-owned parcel where the state fair has operated under contract for 85 years.

The fair is a huge part of this community’s deep agricultural legacy and the enormous economic benefits that local agricultural operations provide to us all. Even if you never attended Petaluma’s single-largest annual event, which offers livestock and horticultural exhibits, carnival rides, live music and the world-renowned Ugly Dog contest, you’ve probably benefited by eating or drinking the many locally produced agricultural products the fair promotes in partnership with Petaluma-area agriculturists, processors, 4-Hers and Future Farmers of America members who annually enter their projects and animals for judging at the fair.

Operated by appointees to California’s 4th District Agricultural Association, the fairgrounds also hosts an annual Ag Day where thousands of local school kids learn that milk, cheese, eggs, fruits, vegetables, beef and chicken don’t come from supermarket shelves but rather are grown in the ground or raised on the farm by people who dedicate their lives to feeding others. As a result, many of these children have gone on to become farmers themselves, thus ensuring a future for locally-produced food and beverages.

Educating future generations about what agriculture looks, smells, and sounds like is no small undertaking and the Sonoma-Marin Fair is vital to ensuring that tradition continues. It’s also a place where local non-profit organizations hold their fundraisers and provides a safe haven during natural disasters like wildfires.

For many years, fair officials have made it abundantly clear that a long-term extension of their lease with the city, set to expire at the end of 2023, is necessary to obtain funding to upgrade facilities and ensure the long term viability of the fair. Plans to install solar panels and electric car-charging stations, rehabilitate aging barns and renew subleases with fairgrounds tenants, including two local schools and a racetrack, cannot occur until there is certainty about the property’s long-term use.

At the same time, Petaluma’s elected officials are responsible for getting the most efficient utilization of this valuable property for the benefit of its owners, the citizens of Petaluma. To do that will require reconfiguring the fairgrounds property so the fair can operate more efficiently while opening up space for new public uses, thus enabling the property’s full potential to be achieved.

Development of an event center, for example, could present a tremendous opportunity to sustain the fair’s finances while providing the community with a new and valuable asset. The potential for opening up some of the fair’s underutilized property for recreation, including ball fields, should also be explored.

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.

Yet for almost two decades the fair’s future has grown increasingly uncertain.

Beginning more than 15 years ago, a joint committee composed of Petaluma City Council members (landlord) and Sonoma-Marin Fair Board members (tenant) held several closed door meetings over the course of 16 months to discuss plans for the 60-acre 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 decades to come.

But negotiations went nowhere and a subsequent council instead directed former City Manager John Brown to hammer out an agreement directly with the fair’s CEO. But increasingly overwhelmed by the city’s worsening fiscal crisis, Brown seemed more focused on generating increased municipal revenue than in ensuring the fair’s economic success and longevity, so nothing was achieved.

Now that city residents have approved a sales tax increase to stabilize city finances, current City Manager Peggy Flynn has proposed a practical path forward aimed at gathering objective information and broad-based public feedback to guide decision-making. To do that, Flynn has promised a transparent and inclusive process to elicit input from all community members and develop a shared vision to support the fair’s continuance while ensuring the property is more fully utilized for the benefit of all Petalumans.

That process was supposed to kick off with public listening sessions in the spring of this year but has since been delayed to the fall due to the pandemic and urgent demands for police reform and racial equity, among many other priorities.

The delay is understandable, but this important issue should not be postponed indefinitely, a point underscored during a “Save the Fairgrounds” motor rally last month by dozens of fair supporters.

Sonoma-Marin Fair CEO Allison Keaney told me last week that City Manager Flynn’s process outline “provides something we never had before,” and believes that, once initiated, will produce a successful roadmap for the fair’s revival and continued success. This cannot come quickly enough, she said, given that revenues for the event-based enterprise plunged by more than 60% last year, leaving behind a troubling staffing shortage and related challenges.

Despite these setbacks, Keaney is hopeful the fair will enjoy a partial financial resurgence this year as she busily prepares for a scaled-back hybrid fair followed by the renewal of several fair-based events, including the Petaluma Music Festival in August benefiting local music in the schools programs.

The Sonoma-Marin Fair is an important and valuable asset to Petaluma, as is the property upon which it operates. When the city inked its first contract with the fair operator in 1936, Sonoma County was ranked eighth in the United States for agricultural wealth. Today that industry is valued at nearly $1 billion annually.

With effective communication, collaboration and compromise the potential for preserving the fair, bolstering the local ag industry and expanding public uses at the fairgrounds is great.

John Burns is former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com.

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