Governor Signs Bill Keeping Orange County Fair & Event Center in Place

The Orange County Fair & Event Center is not going anywhere thanks to legislation signed by Governor Jerry Brown on Monday.

“I thank the governor for his support for my bill, which deletes the provisions of state law exposing the property to a potential sale,” said Assemblyman Tom Daly (D-Anaheim). “The Fair & Event Center is a source of pride and enjoyment for people across Orange County, and this ensures it will remain the special place that it is.”

What my former colleague Chasen Marshall referred to as “150 acres of concrete and culture, which had been serving a community purpose since 1949” did not seem as if it would remain a special place early in 2009. That's when watchdogs sounded the public alarm over shadowy figures occupying Orange County Fair & Event Center Board of Director seats and administrative offices cooking up plans to privatize the state-owned facility in Costa Mesa. The rumor was the fairgrounds would be sold to developers, razed and replaced by homes. 

The players who put the fairgrounds in play managed to get the ear of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in May 2009 deemed the property a “surplus or underutilized” asset. Keep in mind the fair hosts more than 1 million visitors annually, and the fairgrounds is filled on non-fair time weekends by expositions, gun/car/boat/home/etc. shows and the hugely popular Orange County Marketplace. Many other days of the week, other users book the place and schoolchildren visit the on-site Centennial Farm.

Here's how Marshall put what was going on in his cover story, “Fair Games Over the OC Fairgrounds:”

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.

But these were the dark days when California was reeling from a $42 billion state budget deficit, so the Governator recommended the fairgrounds—which is formally known as the 32nd Agricultural District—become the first of several state properties that would be put up for sale to close the financial gap.

That did not stop the Preservation Society, which was composed of fair lovers and state workers and bankrolled by the Orange County Marketplace owners, from seeking to halt the sale. They characterized the proposed sale as illegal and shamed local legislators in Sacramento for not intervening. Of course, like Schwarzenegger and the Orange County privatizers, most of those politicos were Republicans. 

Foes could not thwart a public auction, but a funny thing happened on the way to state coffers: Would-be buyers underbid what the governor's office thought was a fair fairgrounds price. A new bidding process was launched, but before any sales agreements could be signed, lawsuits were filed that stopped the sale.

The matter dragged into the Brown administration, which was not the only public entity that had changed since 2009. After a closed session on Jan. 27, 2011, the fair board issued a policy statement that read: “We believe that the 32nd District Agricultural Association and Orange County Fair belong in public hands. As such, the Board of Directors have instructed its Sale Committee to engage with the Governor's office in a meaningful negotiation regarding revenue sharing as a possible way to work with the State in the financial crisis that we're experiencing.”

Brown reacted that it was not the best time for the state to sell real estate and that unloading the fairgrounds would cost taxpayers “far more in the long run.” But to show you how slowly things grind in Sacramento—even with a governor and legislature solidly in the grip of the same political party—Brown did not sign Daly's Assembly Bill 1907 until more than five and half years later.

And we all know how screwy things get up there in NorCal. So this future battle cry is offered to fair lovers: I'll give you the deep fried bacon wrapped Krispy Kreme when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

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