Petaluma fairground talks to start behind closed doors

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After years of closed-door discussions about the fate of the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, officials on both sides of upcoming lease negotiations say they’re ready to bring the conversation out into the open and involve the public at an unprecedented level.

It took three somewhat contentious votes to get there, but the Petaluma City Council this week selected a temporary subcommittee that will represent the city in the first wave of meetings with fairgrounds board next month.

Council members Mike Healy, Kevin McDonnell and Dave King, who was absent at Monday’s meeting at City Hall, were appointed for the assignment, and will help craft the framework for a process that officials believe could benefit from a fresh approach.

“We’re trying to hit the reset button and do a preliminary step to a preliminary step (by going this route),” said City Manager Peggy Flynn.

The city owns the coveted 64-acre property in the heart of Petaluma and leases it to the 4th District Agricultural Association, a state agency that operates the Sonoma-Marin Fair and is overseen by a board of directors that is appointed by the governor.

The current lease, which was adopted in 1973 and later extended an additional 25 years, provides the city $1 annually, and expires in 2023.

The council subcommittee is expected to convene with a similar group representing the Fair Board at a day-and-a-half closed-door workshop in October that will be mediated by an impartial consultant, said Petaluma Economic Development Manager Ingrid Alverde.

The city has enlisted Barry Long, managing principal for Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates, to facilitate the workshop, Alverde said. UDA arbitrated the redesign process for Paradise, the Butte County town that suffered the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history last year.

The price for UDA’s services is $12,000, but Petaluma officials haven’t committed to the agency long-term, and Alverde said they’re not sure if a mediator will be needed for the entire length of negotiations.

In addition to hammering out the rules of engagement, the “guiding principles” and “base assumptions,” according to a city staff report, both sides will discuss an outreach plan designed to engage the community and identify the broader priorities and concerns for the property.

Although, for Healy, that’s not enough. One of the longest-tenured council members, he described the process over the last four years as having “a total lack of transparency,” and called for this preliminary workshop to be held in a public setting to signal a new, clear-cut approach to the community.

“Everybody knows what’s going on except the public,” said Healy. “I think that needs to stop and it needs to stop now.”

The council was split on how much public involvement was necessary at such an early step.

Other council members favored keeping this process in place with the workshop held away from the public eye — at least at this stage.

“For this very limited period of time in meeting with the Fair Board, it is really just to figure out how that community process is going to move forward,” said Councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer. “We can certainly come back and report on it, and be transparent.”

For now, the initial workshop will remain private, Alverde said. The early objective is to find common ground on both sides so they can bring a united front to the public outreach phase, she said.

Fairgrounds CEO Allison Keaney, who was appointed as the organization’s top executive in March 2018, said the Fair Board is optimistic about what this new approach to the process could deliver.

She envisions a public outreach style similar to the city’s daylong goal-setting workshop in April, which was free flowing and leaned on input from residents. The result was a comprehensive series of policy objectives that were refined publicly over the course of several months before they were eventually adopted by the council.

Dominic Grossi, Michael Parks and a yet-to-be-determined third Fair Board member will represent the fairgrounds at the upcoming workshop, Keaney said.

“The (message) we keep coming back to is working with the city to find the highest and best use of the property to sustain the city,” she said. “That’s the guiding star.”

Roughly a dozen tenants operate from the fairgrounds, and numerous festivals and events are hosted there throughout the year.

The uncertain future of the most popular gathering, the Sonoma-Marin Fair, has been the tensest part of the contract talks for much of the community.

Officials have been adamant the beloved annual event, a vestige of Petaluma’s agrarian roots, will remain. But, in the same breath, have also indicated it will likely occupy a smaller footprint as the city tries to maximize revenue at its largest developable property.

Once the public pool and Petaluma Regional Library are taken out, the city and fairgrounds are looking to design about 55 acres on two parcels, Alverde said.

Exactly how revenue will be generated is one of the largest questions that remains, and city officials hope including the public throughout the master-planning process will lead to a vision for the property everyone can support.

At least one citizen-led group has advocated for preserving the fairgrounds as is. Other groups and even some members of the current council have expressed support for things like affordable housing development, an event center or relocating City Hall to consolidate municipal services at the most accessible site in Petaluma.

“I think we’ve been hiding long enough,” said Councilwoman Kathy Miller, who echoed Healy’s call for a wholly public process. “People are tired of it, and they want to know what’s going on. It’s a huge parcel right smack dab in the middle of town. How we move forward with what’s on that parcel is important to the community, and I think the meetings related to its fate need to be public meetings.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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