Fair Games Over the OC Fairgrounds

The huge swath of public land is in play. But is the whole thing rigged?

Fair Games Over the OC Fairgrounds

It slammed down as fast as a giant mallet hitting a "Test Your Strength!" game. In May 2009, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recommended that the Orange County Fairgrounds be put up for sale.

Schwarzenegger listed the fairgrounds among other state assets he deemed "surplus or underutilized." By his measure, the land would better serve the state if it were sold to the highest bidder.

Suddenly, all 150 acres of concrete and culture, which had been serving a community purpose since 1949, became just a massive chunk of real estate. The fairgrounds were in play—in a county with more than its fair share of players.

Hopefully, the shows will go on
John Gilhooley
Hopefully, the shows will go on
Lisa Sabo has long fought for the Equestrian Center
John Gilhooley
Lisa Sabo has long fought for the Equestrian Center

Location Info


OC Fairgrounds

88 Fair Drive
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Category: Community Venues

Region: Costa Mesa

What followed was a story of deception by a small group in a position of power within the fairgrounds hierarchy. Through various contractual agreements between people of wealth and power, a move was made to privatize that public land in what members of the Orange County Fairgrounds Preservation Society call one of the largest, most deliberate land grabs in the county's long history of land grabs.

In response, the Preservation Society—a group of volunteers with commercial and personal interests at stake—stepped up to stop the sale. It argued that because Orange County legislators in Sacramento hadn't pushed hard enough to discourage it—that's how the Del Mar Fairgrounds and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum are said to have been saved—the sale of this public land was both ill-advised and illegal.

Following a public auction, plus two more rounds of bids, Facilities Management West (FMW) presented the most compelling offer: a $100 million bid. Before the paperwork could be signed, two lawsuits were filed (one by the Preservation Society, the other by Tel Phil Enterprises), and the sale was halted—despite what appeared to be 11th-hour efforts from the Schwarzenegger administration to push it through.

As of press time, the two sides—those who support the sale and those who do not—were waiting for one of two developments: The opening brief in the Court of Appeal for lawsuits alleging the sale was illegal, or for the new governor, Jerry Brown, to dismiss the sale outright.

If the governor dismisses the sale, the land will be protected and the show will go on. If he does not, the worry is that under the control of FMW—a firm that appears to have ties to the former governor—the fairgrounds as people know them today could be lost forever.

*     *     *

On weekend mornings, the parking lot of the fairgrounds becomes a patchwork of moving trucks and tents made from tarps. Customers weave their way through the OC Marketplace, where almost anything can be purchased, from fresh bagels to a new car. On weekday afternoons, large, muscular horses carrying willowy teenagers gallop around dirt arenas and leap over wood poles at the Equestrian Center; Olympians have trained on these grounds. For a month every summer, each square foot of the 150 acres is transformed into the OC Fair, when the city of Costa Mesa welcomes more than l million visitors to dine on deep-fried Twinkies, ride the giant Ferris wheel and view the Giant Steer. During this time, the songs of Boston or B.B. King or, come this July, Bob Dylan carry beyond the walls of the Pacific Amphitheatre and into surrounding neighborhoods.

On a cloudy Thursday morning in late February, just as another contentious OC Fair & Event Center (OCFEC) Board of Directors meeting is about to begin, chatty elementary-school children spill out of a bus outside Centennial Farm. Just like the thousands who have come before them, they spend a couple of hours learning about baby chicks and mother pigs.

In the administration building of the OCFEC, the board members sit around a rectangular table, its center cut out, staring inward at one another. The setting feels like an apt representation of the way the group has gone about handling its business: taking into consideration the interests of those at the table before anyone outside it.

The meeting is run much like that of any other governing agency: the Pledge of Allegiance, reading from the agenda, motions and votes—all of which represent an improvement. "They didn't even used to understand Robert's Rules of Order," says Lisa Sabo, who can often be found sitting in the audience, keeping a close eye and sharp ear for what's discussed and decided.

Meetings have the feeling of a stage play, with audience members watching every movement, reading body language and devouring each statement. When a key topic comes up, such as an increase in vendor space-rental fees, only the occasional groan or whispered discussion is heard.

During the time for public comments, regardless of the subject matter, the board is not required to respond. When questions are posed or accusations made, the group will sit and stare, and then thank the individual for his or her time. On occasion, a conversation will ensue, but that's usually when the stakes are low. At the Feb. 24 meeting, while Sabo played an audio recording in which Steve Beazley, the president and CEO of OCFEC, is denying the existence of an appraisal, he sat slouched in his chair, chewing on his pen, his withering gaze set on Sabo. When her three minutes were up, a bell rang, and the next speaker was called.

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