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Stay Vigilent On Fair Happenings

By William Lobdell

You’ve got to grudgingly admire Facilities Management West’s moxie.

The winning bidder to buy the 150-acre Orange County Fairgrounds property in Costa Mesa (at a bargain basement $20 million down and $80 million paid over 40 years) has gone for what salespeople call the “presumptive close.”

Relying only on its public relations efforts of late, you would think that a) the Newport Beach-based company already owned the property and b) it would soon be taking over operations of the Orange County Fair.

How presumptuous.

But what did you expect from a company that abandoned a partnership with the city of Costa Mesa —jilted itself?

Don’t let Facilities Management West’s clever public relations campaign fool you. The company still has to clear two high hurdles — on two different tracks — before its assumptions match reality.

First, opposition and a new Democrat governor potentially stand in the way of getting the public property in private hands.

Watch how much pressure Facilities Management West brings in the upcoming weeks to close the deal by year’s end. It doesn’t want to risk what a Gov. Jerry Brown administration might do.

But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Facilities Management West clears that hurdle and becomes the property’s owner. It will have bought 150 acres of land. That’s it.

It did not purchase the Orange County Fair itself. That entity belongs to the people of California via the 32nd District Agricultural Assn.

People are rightly confused about this because of last week’s events. Why, for instance, did the state issue pink slips to the workers of the 32nd District when it still is the operator — and guardian — of the public’s fair? And why did Facilities Management West promise jobs to those full-time employees, as if it had already worked out a deal to operate the fair?

Does are doing everything possible to help Facilities Management West buy the property and wrangle control of the publicly owned fair by the end of the month?

A reasonable person viewing Facilities Management West’s presentation last week to the 32nd
District workers would conclude that the company would be running the fair.

“Our the groups assembled here today will manage the property as employees of the OC Events Center.”
(The Facilities Management West has indicated it won’t be satisfied with just being landlord for the
Orange County Fair and continuing to have the 32nd District Agricultural Assn. run it.

So in Orange County — a five-week event that nets millions of dollars for the public. In other words, the board is being asked to outsource the fair to Facilities Management West.

Board who pushed to have the fairgrounds put up for sale in the first place so he and fellow board members could buy it through a nonprofit they planned to form.

The original plan — which quickly fell apart — led to massive community protests, massive protests, citywide the guarantee of litigation up the gazinga.

To paraphrase President Bush, “Helluva job, fair board!”

Or more currently, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, “How’s that whole privatization thing working out?”

At this moment, the public needs be very leery and vigilant. Ellis and other board members are GOP
insiders who’ve shown in recent years to be poor guardians of our fair. With so much Republican pressure Schwarzenegger, has been hired by Facilities Management West to make things happen — we should company at market value.

Here’s another thing I don’t understand. How can the fair board sell the rights to operating the fair without a competitive bidding process? How can a public entity legally negotiate such a big ticket item with a single private company?

The Management West a choice: lease us the fairgrounds at a reasonable rate for our annual event or we’ll go elsewhere.

And Irvine’s Great Park — thousands of acres of open space smack in the middle of Orange County — would be an excellent alternative location for the fair.

That scenario, though, would leave Costa Mesa with a 150-acre white elephant in the center of town. Maybe upon which to draw its development plans — but it would be a terrible loss for Costa Mesa (the fair’s economic impact to the community is estimated to be around $200 million annual).

The best outcome for everyone in the community — except for Facilities Management West and the current fair board — would be for sale not to go through and the genie put back in the bottle, perhaps through litigation or a move by Gov. Brown.

But if Facilities Management West becomes owner of the fairgrounds property, let’s not compound the same private company. Not at the very least without a transparent, competitive bidding process.

In the meantime, remember that despite Facilities Management West bullish public relations efforts, the fat lady hasn’t sung. I can’t even hear her warming up. For now, the fairgrounds property and the Orange County Fair itself are still ours.

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