Lobdell: Stay vigilant on fair happenings


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 like a teary-eyed bride at the altar — during the bidding process in order to get a better deal for 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, it needs to complete the deal to buy the fairgrounds property. But litigation, community 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 anyone else get a foreboding sense that powerful GOP forces in Sacramento and Orange County 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 plans are to protect the annual OC Fair …” read one bullet point. Another: “It is our intent that the groups assembled here today will manage the property as employees of the OC Events Center.” (The fairgrounds’ official name now is OC Fair & Event Center.)

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 the company is in negotiations with the fair board to take over the operations of the annual fair 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 chairman Dave Ellis is leading negotiations for the public. Uh-oh. This is the same Dave Ellis 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 votes, political backstabs, backroom deals, pink slips for more than 100 state employees and 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 to make the deal happen — Gary Hunt, former Irvine Co. executive with close ties to Schwarzenegger, has been hired by Facilities Management West to make things happen — we should have zero expectation that the GOP-influenced fair board will hand the fair over to a private 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 fair board members have alternatives. It could keep operating the fair and give Facilities 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 that’s not a bad outcome for Facilities Management West — giving it close to a blank slate 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 damage by handing over another public asset — this time, the Orange County Fair itself — to 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.

WILLIAM LOBDELL is former editor of the Daily Pilot, former Los Angeles Times reporter and editor, and a Costa Mesa resident. The column normally runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is