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City still seeks a fair deal

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As the annual Sonoma-Marin Fair gets under way this week, we are reminded of Petaluma’s deeply cherished agricultural heritage and the hugely important economic benefits that local farming operations provide this community. But as fair goers listen to live music or gaze across town atop the Ferris wheel, they should also recognize that this venerable institution might not be around much longer.

With its lease of the fairgrounds property on East Washington Street expiring in just five years, and despite multiple years of closed-door negotiations between fair officials and the City of Petaluma, which owns the property, it is unknown when a new lease agreement will be finalized, if at all. For a number of reasons, this impasse is not good for the fair or the Petaluma community.

For five days every summer, the Sonoma-Marin Fair draws people from across the North Bay with its food vendors, rides, livestock shows and other attractions. It’s where Petaluma 4-Hers and Future Farmers of America members can showcase their endeavors and where the community can recognize the important work done by our region’s farmers and agricultural enthusiasts.

The property also hosts large year-round community events that require a large venue that only the fairgrounds can provide. In part to support the fair’s finances, several businesses and a school lease space on the site. The property is also a vital resource during emergencies, such as the October fires when the land sheltered hundreds of evacuees and their animals.

The fair, which has occupied the 62-acre parcel since 1936, has for many years been urging the city to extend its lease, noting that its impending expiration has prevented fair managers from making capital improvements to the property because lenders do not want to loan money to an entity with an uncertain future. While the city owns the land, the buildings are owned by the state. The fair is operated by the 4th District Agricultural Association, and its board of directors is appointed by the governor.

Currently, the $1-per-year lease gives the fair sole discretion over what the grounds are used for, an antiquated arrangement that city officials cannot reasonably continue. Petaluma’s fairgrounds started out on inexpensive land at the edge of town, but ended up in the center of Petaluma as development grew up all around it. Now, the central location makes the fairgrounds a very expensive piece of publicly owned real estate that is badly underutilized for 360 days of the year.

In years past, the fair board was adamant that it needed the entire site for its annual event. But more recently, as the clock ticked closer to the end of the lease and the need for improvements on the property intensified, the fair board sensibly said it understood the need for the city to exert more control over its property.

Petaluma’s elected officials are, after all, 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 parcel 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.

If 32 acres of the property were set aside for the fairgrounds, for example, the remaining 30 acres could be transformed into a number of needed public uses. Development of a convention center could present a tremendous opportunity to sustain the fair’s finances while providing the community with a new and valuable asset. Opening up a portion of the fair’s underutilized property for the construction of badly needed low-income housing could also benefit the community.

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.

For the current fiscal year that ends in ten days, the City set a goal to conclude years of fairgrounds lease negotiations and produce either a new lease or a use agreement for the property. Instead, it appears that nothing has been achieved.

The reason for the lack of progress is difficult to determine since meetings between city and fair officials are held in secret, and neither side is commenting publicly. City officials contend that real property negotiations are exempt from state public meeting laws, so Petalumans are left to wonder about the fair’s fate.

This is unacceptable. The Sonoma-Marin Fair is an important and valuable asset to Petaluma, as is the property it operates upon. We urge city and fair leaders to be more transparent in their negotiations and give the public a candid explanation of what is being done to reach consensus. If necessary, the two sides should hire a mediator to get the job done.

Crafting a plan for the site’s future that better meets the needs of all Petaluma residents while concurrently ensuring the long-term viability of the Sonoma-Marin Fair is an important priority that needs a prompt resolution. Allowing more time to pass is not an option.