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Fairgrounds balks at 5-year contract renewal for OC Marathon

The Orange County Fair Board held off Thursday on renewing its rental contract with the OC Marathon, opting instead to more closely examine a deal that would have allowed the for-profit company an additional five years' use of the fair property in Costa Mesa.

In an 8-0 decision, with board member Barbara Bagneris absent, the board voted to approve only this year's marathon and expo, scheduled for May 5-7, but said it wasn't ready to sign off on future years.

The originally proposed renewal was to cover this year through 2021.

The contract with OC Marathon LLC allows the Costa Mesa-based company rental use of the fairgrounds between May 3 and 8 for a minimum of $100,000. The fairgrounds, however, retains any revenue from food, beverage and parking generated during the event.

Some board members said they were upset that the contract — which was placed on the meeting agenda's consent calendar, where items are considered noncontroversial and require little discussion — wasn't sent to the board's Tenant Liaison Committee for review prior to Thursday.

"The only time I've heard about this is from staff today," said board member Stan Tkaczyk, who serves on the committee. "That speaks volumes of disappointment. That speaks to why we set up the Tenant Liaison Committee. It was to have board members involved."

He noted that other contracts, such as the one with the Orange County Market Place weekend swap meet, involved much discussion, yet the one with the OC Marathon didn't.

Tkaczyk and board member Ashleigh Aitken are expected to review the contract after the marathon.

Aitken, who said she's planning to run in the marathon, suggested that some of the money it raises go to children's education efforts at Centennial Farm and Heroes Hall, two of the fairgrounds' onsite facilities.

Several board members said they aren't necessarily against a long-term commitment and were complimentary of the event.

When asked about the OC Marathon's financial health, its chief executive officer, Gary Kutscher, told the board, without mentioning specifics, that "it's not as good as it was a couple of years ago."

He noted, however, that the kids' run is the largest such single-day run in the nation, attracting some 10,000 children alongside 15,000 parents.

Kutscher said his company wants to make sure the fairgrounds "remains the home of the OC Marathon and the kids' run. It's such a powerful event, and there's so many amazing stories."

Fair Board Chairman Nick Berardino said that when the marathon contract was last approved in 2011 to last through 2016, he felt like it was being "shoved down our throats." At the time, the vote was 5-3, with Berardino among the dissenters.

Berardino alerted the public during the October 2011 discussion that the OC Marathon had turned from a nonprofit whose original goal was to fight childhood obesity into a for-profit company.

There also was tension between Berardino, a union activist who was then the head of the Orange County Employees Assn., and his political rival Scott Baugh, who at the time was chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County and an owner of the OC Marathon company.

Though the OC Marathon is a limited-liability company, it maintains a separate nonprofit foundation, also based at its Costa Mesa office near John Wayne Airport.

According to a flier about the marathon's fundraising efforts, it has raised more than $4 million since 2004. In 2016, 21 charity partners raised $535,714 for their causes.

In addition to the OC Marathon Foundation, charity partners this year include the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, Orange County Bar Foundation and Susan G. Komen Orange County.

Fairgrounds Chief Executive Kathy Kramer said she wants to craft policies to prevent another apparent disconnect between contract negotiations and the Tenant Liaison Committee.

"We certainly don't want to be in this situation again," she said.

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

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