FMW selected as fairgrounds winner

COSTA MESA — The real estate company that worked with the city to buy the Orange County Fairgrounds has been named the winning bidder for the 150-acre property from the state, the California Department of General Services (DGS) announced Wednesday.

The deal between Newport Beach-based Facilities Management West (FMW) and DGS does not include a component that would give the city ownership rights.

FMW offered $100 million, which will be paid to the state over a 35-year period, with the first $20 million paid up front.

The property would be sold as is. The Orange County Fair & Event Center, also known as the 32nd District Agricultural Assn., would remain intact and would not be sold as part of the property.

"Facilities Management West obviously is delighted and eager to demonstrate that we have the creativity, capital and commitment to operate this important regional entertainment center successfully, with integrity, new vitality and in the public interest," FMW spokesman Guy Lemmon said in a prepared statement.

Because FMW had the opportunity to work on details of the sale with Costa Mesa, it had an advantage no other interested party had, said former Mayor Sandy Genis, who opposes the sale.

Steve Beazley, president and chief executive of the fairgrounds, agrees with Genis, but he said this isn't the end of the line.

"There are still several steps in this process, even after they award the bidder," Beazley said. "It's really the beginning of the award, not the end. There are many steps to go before a contract is completed."

The state Legislature does not need to approve the sale, said DGS spokesman Eric Lamoureux.

"We notified the Legislature today of our intent to sell, but we already have the authorization to go forward with the sale," he said.

The transaction with Costa Mesa required Legislature approval, he said, while the transaction with FMW does not because the Legislature already approved the sale of the property as is in July of last year.

The state is in the process of completing a contract with FMW, Lamoureux said. Once a contract is in place, it will be sent to escrow. The sale is expected to be completed by December, he said.

But opposition appears to be brewing in Sacramento.

Assemblyman Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana), who took the lead in trying to help Costa Mesa residents keep the fairgrounds, issued a statement saying he's prepared to fight to keep the fairgrounds in the hands of the people.

"The citizens of our county want to keep the Orange County Fairgrounds under public ownership," he said.

Solorio plans to introduce new legislation on Dec. 6 to block the sale. His attempt to block the sale earlier this year failed.

Lamoureux would not disclose the other parties that submitted a bid, saying it could hinder negotiations with FMW. While the exact number of bidders was not released, there were said to be multiple parties, including the owner of the regular swap meet at the fairgrounds.

Councilwoman Katrina Foley said she was not surprised by the winning bid.

"The governor's office has made it clear from the beginning that they favored FMW over even the city's position during negotiations," she said. "Remember, Gary Hunt is the governor's campaign finance chairman, and FMW began negotiating with the state long before the original public auction last year."

Hunt, who runs a public relations firm, was also hired by FMW after the company began negotiating with the city.

Lemmon would not comment on what Hunt does for the group.

Foley and Councilwoman Wendy Leece attempted to get a vote Tuesday to send a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger challenging his move to place the fairgrounds on sale while still in the process of working a deal with the city, but their efforts were shut down in a 3-2 vote.

"I requested that we file a protest because the governor intentionally prevented the legislation, which killed the deal with the city," Foley said. "The voters of Costa Mesa charged us with protecting the O.C. Fairgrounds as a publically held asset. To do nothing, and allow the fair to be sold privately, ignores the will of the people."

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