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

Map

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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25 comments
Orange county homes
Orange county homes

Wow, great article, I really appreciate your thought process and having it explained properly, thank you!

Kentw007
Kentw007

Congrats to Chasen Marshall for an excellent article and expose of the "non-profit" scam used to steal public property for developers

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Anotherlogan
Anotherlogan

Rabble rabble rabble! Long live the zipper and deep fried Klondike bar! Leave the fair alone!

Josh
Josh

I hope we can save the O.C. fairgrounds. I am Local business owner who also has a spot at O.C. market place. The Market Place has helped my company for every weekend for past two years..We are clothing company that is made in the USA. We have been hit hard with the economy and all impots from China. But the O.C. Market place gives us a chance to sell direct to our local public.I get direct feed back from customer's on our product line. I and many other people depend on the income from our business at the market place. I thought the State should want to make money..No one has ever even talked about the fair and Market Place and all the sales tax revenue.. So our Governor needs to stop this SALE and fix the board. There has been to much time and money waisted on this already. If all this energy was put on fixing up the fairgrounds. Everyone would benefit the community, small business and tax money for the State. You sell to Private party they will worry about one side them making money.. To me the board is no better then city officials from Bell Gardens.

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sleazy weazly
sleazy weazly

Priya you are a fucking idiot if David Padilla is a moron! He is a man of great character and was the only truth teller of the group.This article just confirms what the whole county has known all along.This entire toilet bowl of shit needs flushing.

Turn To The Left and Cough
Turn To The Left and Cough

While I appreciate your regurgitation of innuendo from a multitude of blog posts and reader comments found elsewhere, I noticed a couple of error in your article:

1. Del Mar is currently on the chopping block.

2. The Orange County Fair is not the only self-sustaining Fair in the state.

3. Rent did not increase for vendors. Ask Mike Robbins how much his rent went up this year. If he was honest, he would tell you it is the same as last year. But no one would accuse him of being honest. The fair is charging more for certain spaces but no one is required to rent those spaces. And each vendor contract is for one year, so there is no guarantees about space made year after year.

4. The equestrian center is not used for evacuations, the fairgrounds are. Evacuated animals are housed in temporary pens and are managed by fair staff and volunteers.

5. David Padilla is an idiot. To act like he is some kind of beacon of integrity is ridiculous. He is the idiot prince of the swap meet.

Weird Al
Weird Al

This Fair Board needs to be replaced AND they should be held accountable for misappropriations of public funds.

Kim
Kim

I hope we can save the Fairgrounds and equestrian center! My entire childhood was filled with trips to the fair and the swap meet! We still go!

PriyaPandit
PriyaPandit

...because David Padilla was a moron is why he was removed.

Tilt a Whirl Ted
Tilt a Whirl Ted

I agree leave the fair alone, just get rid of the CORRUPT ASSHOLES that run the place!

OCLocal
OCLocal

The writer did not state that the rates were increased recently from the article:

"In 1990, Robbins began attending board meetings. Within a few years, he was the unofficial spokesman for the vendors, organizing them when necessary, such as when the rate charged per square foot was increased from $30 to $100."

I am sure there has been more than one time since 1990 that the board raised rates.

truth's a bitch isn't it!
truth's a bitch isn't it!

1.Del Mar is mired in the same scandalous crap as this fairgrounds is, again at the hands of public officials with a heavily scrutinzed agenda,NOT ON THE CHOPPING BLOCK as you erroneously state! 2.So what ,great now what is your point? 3.The fact that Mr. Robbin's rent is being raised at all, speaks to the lack of any business understanding whatsoever by bureaucrats. 4.This is just an out and out fabrication of the truth,what a surprise another outright lie. 5.Last but certainly not least is that the confusion from which you suffer confusing character with idiocy and integrity with corruption. Dr.Weazley I find it fascinating that you are revealing your suppresed desire to fondle another man's genitals with your "all truth in jest" handle.Classic!

sidewinder
sidewinder

Alright this is either S or D Beazley,Hoban,Wachner,or Richards.You are all equally pathetic and will soon be looking for work, oh or I almost forgot the puppetmaster Gheppto himself DAAAAVVVVEEEE ELLIS.

 
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