It snarls up the traffic, clogs the parking, puts local police and firefighters on edge and fills the air with the fetid smell of, alternately, frying confectionery, sweaty rodeo riders and horse manure.

The Del Mar Fairgrounds is not the ideal neighbor for tony Del Mar. This small, neat community of multimillion-dollar homes and posh restaurants has always had a love-hate relationship with the fairgrounds. Residents love taking their grandchildren to the fair, but hate the descent of weapon-toting out-of-towners at the annual gun show. Restaurateurs and salespeople at fancy boutiques love the summer crowds brought by the fairgrounds, but prefer the racing clique to the fair-going hordes, who are less likely to buy expensive sirloins or designer cocktail dresses.

At first glance, it’s hard to understand why the city of Del Mar would want to purchase the fairgrounds: The proposed sale is a daunting financial deal for the county’s smallest city and it comes as even Del Mar is feeling the raw financial climate. And why, oh why, would the city want to buy an institution that its residents have so many problems with and dislike so much about?

The answer is simple: At the core of the city’s proposal is reformation.

Del Martians may not like everything about the fair now, but they certainly don’t want the site turning into a hotel ghetto or a convention center. They don’t like the current gun shows, or the traffic, or the impact on their emergency services, but these are exactly the problems that an owner — as opposed to a neighbor — has the chance to control.

For decades, the city has felt kept out of the loop by a cabalistic state body and it sees a chance to grab this horse’s reins and tame the fairgrounds until it has become a more controllable, more acquiescent, beast.

The arcanely named 22nd District Agricultural Association has reveled in the fact that it’s immune from any regulation from the city and has parlayed that into an active neglect of Del Mar, said Wayne Dernetz, a former Del Mar city manager who’s been “dealing with those guys for more than 30 years.”

“It’s almost as if they’ve taken glee in insulting the city,” Dernetz added.

In May 2009, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed selling the Del Mar Fairgrounds, along with several state-owned office buildings and the Orange County Fairgrounds, to raise money to help plug California’s budget. State Sen. Christine Kehoe has been working on a bill that would allow the sale but has been delayed by Sacramento’s budget mess.

Complicating matters, Gov. Jerry Brown, who inherited the issue from his predecessor and could choose to veto Kehoe’s bill, has been silent on the matter since taking office. All signs from Sacramento show that he has no intention of dealing with this issue any time soon and there’s no indication as to whether Brown wants to take the same route as Schwarzenegger.

The Ooh La La Boutique in Del Mar Plaza is one of the
stores that appreciates the business that comes from the
races. ‘That’s when the big spenders come,’ says Kay
Patrick, the store manager. | Photo by Sam Hodgson
Click to enlarge.

This stalemate has given both sides plenty of time to make their case.

The group backing the deal — a curious hodgepodge of small-town politicians, environmentalists, business leaders and millionaire horse-owners — says the fairgrounds has been badly managed by a group of well-connected political donors appointed by the governor, who have spent the last few decades picking fights with just about every interest group, politician and gadfly in Del Mar.

For example, the plan to put a condo-hotel on the site would have a big impact on local traffic. But the agricultural association responded by shifting the responsibility for fixing the traffic problem to the city, Dernetz said. The association told the city it would have to build — and pay for — traffic signals at every intersection on Camino Del Mar, the main road through town, he said.

“Do you know how much that would cost?” Dernetz said. “That’s one example of the arrogance and insensitivity they have to the impact of their operations on this community.”

Barry Nussbaum, president of the district’s board of directors, who was first appointed a decade ago, has a tough job. He has to convince locals that the nine-member board, which is made up primarily of businesspeople from North County (four are from Rancho Santa Fe), has the community’s best interests at heart, even though they were appointed by a governor in Sacramento rather than voted in by county residents.

Nussbaum said the board’s being unfairly branded by a group of naysayers that’s never even tried to work together.

“This is a solution in search of a problem,” Nussbaum said. “It’s a bouncing ball that each time it bounces and we catch the ball and solve their problem, they throw another ball at us.”

“There is no problem,” Nussbaum added.

Del Martians, Solana Beach-ians and their leaders have raised five key problems with the way the fair’s run:

The Cost of Safety: Del Mar and Solana Beach have to provide police, ambulances and firefighters to the fairgrounds. In return, the cities get a small cut of any gambling revenue from racing events and a slice of the sales tax revenue from other events. The cities argue that their cut doesn’t fully reimburse them for their services.

The Track’s Big Dreams: Controversy has raged over the agricultural association’s plan for the future development of the fairgrounds, which envisions a 330-room condo-hotel. Environmentalists and local residents are furious about the idea.

The Gun Show and More: Though the city of Del Mar has pledged to keep all the events that currently call the fairgrounds home, some residents don’t want it to host certain events. Most controversial is the gun show.

The Dollar Bills: Del Mar officials claim that the annual county fair draws sales tax dollars away from restaurants and businesses in the city center because fairgoers are, in the words of City Councilman Mark Filanc, too busy “buying deep-fried Twinkies and butter pats” at the fair and locals don’t want to venture into town because it’s too crowded.

Traffic Jams and Concert Noise: Residents complain that annual events at the fair clog access streets into Del Mar and cause traffic jams on the freeway. Some residents have also complained about the noise from concerts and other events.

Nussbaum and his colleagues at the agricultural association recently put out a glossy pamphlet called “Facts vs. Fiction” that addresses many of the arguments made against the body.

The pamphlet and Nussbaum make some valid points. For example, the condo-hotel that was originally envisioned as a possible extension of the fairgrounds has now been scrapped and will soon disappear from the master plan. And, no matter who owns and operates the Del Mar Fairgrounds, the county fair and races will still attract more than a million visitors and choke local traffic.

While many Del Martians have reservations about the
various events at the fairgrounds, the horse races are
still quite revered. | Photo by Sam Hodgson | Click
to enlarge.

The agricultural association says the proposed deal to sell the fairgrounds will also probably bankrupt Del Mar, since the city has no experience running the facility or anything like it. And, it’s unfair to put the fate of a regional asset in the hands of “one one-thousandth of the population of the county,” as Nussbaum puts it.

And the process by which the sale is being put together — via legislation instead of a competitive bidding process — is a bad deal for the state and for the public, who could get much more money for the land than the $120 million the city is offering, Nussbaum said.

Kehoe has portrayed the city’s effort to buy the fairgrounds as a way to keep a regional jewel publicly owned instead of selling it to developers, who would slaver at the chance to build high-rise condominiums overlooking the Pacific.

It is about that. But the proposal is also, at its core, about making the property a more suitable neighbor for Del Mar residents. The city’s leaders say they can rid the fairgrounds of its problems without killing the spirit of the events that San Diegans have come to know and love.

If the sale ever goes through, the rest of San Diego County will be watching closely to see if the little city where the turf meets the surf can keep its promise.

Click on the image to enlarge | Graphic by San Diego Magazine

This story also appeared in the May edition of San Diego Magazine.

Please contact Will Carless directly at or at 619.550.5670 and follow him on Twitter:

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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