By SANDY GENIS
President, Orange County Fairgrounds Preservation Society, former Mayor of Costa Mesa
As the saying goes, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” We’re being told that the state is going to make $96 million, paid out over 40 years, by selling the Orange County fairgrounds to the city of Costa Mesa. The city will make $228 million over the 55-year lease of the fairgrounds. And a mysterious entity called “Facilities Management West” will bankroll the whole thing at no cost to taxpayers.
However, even a cursory glance at the Memorandum of Understanding between Facilities Management West and the city shows that FMW will have free rein over the fairgrounds for 55 years with no real restrictions and, in fact, won’t even be constrained by Measure C, the voter-approved initiative in Costa Mesa designed to preserve the uses of the fairgrounds.
For example, the MOU requires that the annual fair, Centennial Farm, Youth Expo, equestrian uses, and a marketplace/swap meet continue, but as stated in the MOU, “FMW will have the right to resize and relocate within the property.” Thus, if the fair doesn’t make enough money for its liking, FMW can “resize” it so that the Orange County Fair consists of a clown and a bounce house. FMW would be legally within its rights to “resize” the equestrian facility down to one horse in one stall if it wants.
But at least the city will exercise close oversight over operations, right? Wrong. The contract is not between FMW and the city, but between FMW and a Joint Powers Authority made up of the City Council members. The rent FMW will pay does not go to Costa Mesa, but to this JPA. And, under Section 5 of the MOU, FMW agrees to meet with the JPA just once a year so the JPA can provide “suggestions” as to how FMW operates the fairgrounds, which FMW is free to ignore.
The city is doing its level best to lock in this 55-year lease before the public realizes how ugly it all is. For example, according to Section 10 of the MOU, not even the JPA has any approval rights over subleases or operating agreements that FMW may enter into. So, for example, if FMW enters into a sublease agreement to hold a 72-hour rave at the fairgrounds, with blaring music 24 hours a day and hundreds of thousands of drug-addled teens, the city is powerless to stop it.
In fact, Section 9 of the MOU states unequivocally, “FMW shall have the right, without the JPA’s consent, to make alterations to the existing improvements” (emphasis added). In other words, the renters have the right to tear down what they want, build what they want, do what they want, and neither the JPA nor the city has any legal right to stop them.
But Measure C will stop FMW from ruining the fairgrounds, right? Not so fast. Section 5 states that if FMW wants to pursue events or uses not consistent with Measure C, it can, if the JPA gives the “OK.” No fuss, no muss and no “vote of the people” as promoted in the initiative. If FMW wants to change the use of the fairgrounds, forget Measure C, it just needs a vote of the JPA.
FMW has already begun discussing revenue from a sign program, “similar to LA Live,” the downtown LA entertainment complex including Staples Center, Nokia Plaza and high-rise hotels. This type of urban development would devastate the quality of life of the Costa Mesa neighborhoods surrounding the fairgrounds.
You’ve heard from Costa Mesa officials and newspaper columnists [“Fair deal – maybe,” Commentary, July 18] who say that, while this is a bad deal, it’s the best that can be done. The Orange County Fairgrounds Preservation Society strongly disagrees. We’re optimistic that a better deal can be reached.
We had great hopes that local control would preserve our fairgrounds and ensure its protection. Unfortunately, in their rush to obtain ownership of the fairgrounds at no cost to the taxpayer, the city is on the verge of making a deal with the devil that would destroy the fairgrounds and hand over unfettered control to developers who’d be under financial pressure to permanently turn our traditional local fairgrounds into an urban entertainment complex with no public input.
At the outset, the city had eight goals for the sale: local control, preservation of existing fairground activities, open and transparent governance, no risk to public funds, a smooth transition for employees and assets, compatibility of future development with the city’s General Plan, compatibility of any new uses with existing public uses, and potential economic benefit to the city.
In order to reach a deal, the city has abandoned seven of the eight goals and even the eighth goal of a “potential economic benefit to the city” is illusory at best.
In this case, no deal is better than this deal