By ELLYN PAK and TERI SFORZA
The Orange County Register
COSTA MESA More than 50 fair concessionaires and event promoters rallied outside of the fairgrounds today with banners and matching T-shirts to protest the sale of the site.
“It’s just a movement to let you know we’re trying to save the fair,” said Mike Coffee, a longtime concessionaire who sells beef jerky at the OC Fair. “I don’t want to see the death of the fair.” For an hour, the group encouraged passing cars to honk for their efforts to oppose the sale of the fairgrounds, which the state is looking to sell to help close a budget gap. The vendors also said they are concerned for their future if a private entity took over the site.
The Legislature recently voted to sell the property after resolutions were passed by the city, Fair Board and county that supported the sale of the land to a nonprofit. The OC Fair and Event Center Foundation, which was formed a few weeks ago, could possibly put in a bid for the property.
Fair Board members have said that on too many occasions the state has eyed the property to put up for sale, and the purchase of the fairgrounds by a nonprofit would enable local control of the site. Officials have said if purchased, the fairgrounds would be kept as-is with the fair and hundreds of events intact.
“It’s not productive to assume things are going to be taken away from you so early in the game,” said Fair CEO Steve Beazley. “If we can just keep a cool head, it will play out before everyone’s eyes and they can make an informed decision. What we do not need now is speculation about things that do not exist.”
Beazley said he fully expects there will be a fair next year. The fair was run by a group of locals and was not a state enterprise during its early days. In some ways, Beazley said, becoming a nonprofit will just take the fair back to its roots.
Fair vendors question whether an entity would transform the property and end the fair’s run or increase the vendors’ rents to pay off debt used to purchase the property.
Some vendors speculated the move was intended to avoid public disclosure rules and limits on perks received by Fair Board members. Last year, board officials came under fire when it was revealed that they had over time given themselves thousands of free concert tickets while the music series lost money.
Beazley said those who believe that a nonprofit takeover would allow the fair to hide its financials aren’t considering the reporting requirements of nonprofits, which include filing public tax returns and annual audits.
“It’s a fallacy to think it will create anarchy,” Beazley said.
The vendors have gathered nearly 9,000 petitions in support of saving the site and are passing out T-shirts with “Don’t let them take your fair away” emblazoned on the back.
“It’s almost like home,” said John Garrett, a resident of Costa Mesa who showed up to the rally. “I don’t want to see it go. This is the art and culture exhibition for Orange County. If they were to do away with this, they could create cultural suicide.”
The state is expected to put out a request for bids in a few months. The state expects a 60- to 90-day time frame for proposals to be submitted.
Denise Warner, who has operated a face-painting booth for 23 years, said more effort needs to be made to alert the public to the sale of the site.
“I just absolutely love this fair,” she said. “It’s a huge part of my life.”