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O.C. Market Place vendors left hanging as operators, fair board haggle over reopening

Jeanine Robbins and husband Mike run Paradise Cigars out of a mobile humidor.
Jeanine Robbins and husband Mike run Paradise Cigars out of a mobile humidor that has become a swap meet staple since the business opened in 1979.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

A 21-acre parking lot portion of Costa Mesa’s sprawling Orange County fairgrounds, home of the O.C. Market Place since 1969, has remained quietly shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic.

But a battle over its reopening has been brewing for months.

Some of the 400 vendors who ordinarily peddle wares at bustling weekend swap meets, and who rely on that income, say they are the hapless victims of a dispute that has been locked in an impasse since May.

Anaheim couple Jeanine and Mike Robbins, owners of Paradise Cigars.
Anaheim couple Jeanine and Mike Robbins are owners of Paradise Cigars. “It’s devastating — we desperately want to be able to reopen,” Jeanine said.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Jeanine Robbins and husband Mike run Paradise Cigars out of a mobile humidor that has become a swap meet staple since the business opened in 1979. Weekend sales have been a mainstay for the couple, who had to file for unemployment following a March 12 coronavirus closure.

“Here we are now in August, and it’s been five months we haven’t worked,” said Robbins, who lives with Mike in Anaheim. “It’s devastating — we desperately want to be able to reopen.”

At the heart of the argument is Spectra, a food service and hospitality business that has operated the weekend parking lot attraction since 2016, when the company entered a lease with the 32nd District Agricultural Assn. run by the Orange County Fair & Event Center Board. The rental agreement runs through August 2024.

The Pavilion, located on the first floor of South Coast Plaza’s North parking structure, is accessible only by appointment. More than 100 boutiques are participating.

Spectra last year generated $6,938,600 in revenue to the district — paying around $2 million in rent for the Market Place space and handing over more than $4.83 million from food and beverage concessions made inside the fairgrounds, according to financial figures provided by fair officials.

 OC Market Place/Swap Meet
The operator of the O.C. Market Place tried to pull out of its lease agreement due to the coronavirus shutdowns, claiming hardship beyond its control. But the O.C. Fair & Event Center Board says the swap meet location can open anytime.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

But since the O.C. Market Place was closed in March, Spectra has been trying to terminate its leasing agreement, citing a “force majeure” clause that states either party can exit the contract if unable to perform for 90 days or more due to extreme circumstances.

Executive Vice President Richard Schneider explained in a May 20 termination letter the coronavirus shutdown forced Spectra’s hand.

“Anticipating that the stay-at-home order, or other government restrictions, will prevent the Outdoor Marketplace from reopening by June 12, the purpose of this letter is to notify the Association that Spectra is hereby terminating the agreement, effective [June 20].”

O.C. Fair & Event Center chief executive Michele Richards, however, was not content to accept the termination. In a May 27 letter, she claimed the Market Place was, in fact, allowed to reopen under allowances given Orange County retailers by the state on May 23.

“Spectra is authorized to resume operation of the O.C. Marketplace immediately,” Richards wrote. “Spectra remains obligated to perform under the terms of the rental agreement, including making all rent payments required under the agreement.”

In a June 4 letter of rebuttal, Schneider countered that Spectra was told by the Orange County Health Care Agency “there are no guidelines or protocols in place to allow swap meets to operate.”

Chris and Tou Meechukant work in food service. As restaurants and bars shut down in March, they looked for ways to get beloved Thai products directly into the hands of customers.

Stephanie Singleton, a program manager for the Orange County Environmental Health Division, confirmed by email Friday that outdoor swap meets and flea markets, along with food operations there are, in fact, allowed to reopen as Stage 2 businesses under state guidelines.

Yet the stalemate continues. The fair board planned to address the matter at a June 11 meeting and then again on June 25, but twice heard public comments and tabled the talk until July 23, at which time the item did not appear on the agenda.

Fairgrounds spokeswoman Terry Moore confirmed Friday the last rental payment from Spectra was for the month of March, in the amount of $171,666.

During the June 25 OCFEC Board meeting, Robbins and other vendors pleaded with officials to do something to allow them to resume business. Some suggested the fair board offer Spectra rent relief to ease any claim of hardship, while others suggested OCFEC accept the company’s termination and take over operations.

“Right now, everyone is losing — not only the vendors, but the state, the county and the city in tax revenue,” said Greg Silva, a clothing vendor for the past 30 years. “I would hope we can come to some kind of understanding, letting the Market Place reopen when the time is right.”

Schneider declined a request for an interview, instead providing a statement.

“In June, Spectra terminated its contract to operate the OC Marketplace, as permitted by the terms of the contract,” the statement said. “Subsequently, we have asked the District to meet to discuss a new arrangement under which we could continue to operate the Marketplace, as we have for the last four years, so that its more than 400 vendors will have a place to sustain and grow their small businesses.”

Moore said Friday the ball was in Spectra’s court.

“Spectra has a valid contract,” she said. “If they’d like to open the Market Place, they need to get the permits and get the business going.”

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