Orange County Fair President and Chief Executive Steve Beazley and Fair Board member Dave Ellis on Wednesday wrote a Community Commentary, “Fairgrounds play a big role in kids’ lives,” to vow that the fair as we know it would continue in its present form under their leadership.
It sounded all well and good to me. But at the end of the column came this statement: “I doubt that we could hope for a similar future under private ownership.”
Well, I’m not so sure.
One of my claims to fame at the Daily Pilot — as a reporter and later as the editor — is that I never missed an O.C. Fair. I tested out all the latest fried foods, rode the latest crazy ride and wrote all about the latest pig to give birth to multiple piglets. Through the years, my wife and I brought our children to the annual shindig to join in the fun. They too love the fair food, the carnival rides and even the pigs — though they prefer the Alaskan racing version. My girls even performed at the fair once as part of a dance troupe.
So, I found it distressing when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he was going to sell the property. What would become of it? Would all those fair memories fade away? I watched from afar as the negotiations rolled on, Measure C was passed and the property was sold to Facilities Management West. I worried that private operators would not have the same desire to keep the fair wholesome and fun and instead would turn it into a commercial venture that I or my kids would not recognize.
About a month ago, a friend invited me to meet one of his clients, Guy Lemmon, who happens to be one of the principals of FMW. He knew I had written about my concerns in my blog https://www.goaskyourdadblog.com. I was skeptical that he could convince me of his plan, but after the meeting, I had to admit, his argument that the fair would be better off in private hands than in the hands of the fair board is a pretty good one. Here’s a couple key things Lemmon pointed out to me:
•The state doesn’t have to abide by Measure C. FMW does.
•The state doesn’t have any money (you might have heard of that little budget crisis up in Sacramento). FMW does and offered a $100-million deal to the state to buy the property.
•The state doesn’t pay any property taxes on the fairgrounds property. Facilities Management West would to the tune of $ 1 million a year.
•The state has not guaranteed the future of the Equestrian Center. Facilities Management West has and promises it will enhance the facility for the horse owners.
All that aside, the thing I enjoyed most about meeting Lemmon — who has lived in and raised his family in Orange County for the last 35 years — was to learn he wasn’t the boogeyman he had been made out to be.
“I understand the belief that we are going to do some dastardly thing,” he said. “There are some people who believe that the fair should always be state-run.”
He admitted that yes the fair will ultimately be a revenue generator for him and his partners. Why else would they invest $30 million up front? But that is also why it makes sense that they would enhance the property, not degrade it.
“Southern Californians have a lot of alternatives,” Lemmon said, noting that Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm and other amusement parks are not far away. “We are going to do everything in our power to improve the customer experience and make it as hassle-free as possible. It’s going to be a first-class family entertainment venue. We’ve got a big responsibility to retain and enhance the legacy of the Orange County Fair.”
Look, I have lots of friends involved in this fight, and many are critics of FMW. I don’t doubt that they just want the best thing possible for the future of the O.C. Fair.
But Beazley and Ellis also made this point in their commentary: “Let’s hope the adults will quit fighting over the future of the fairgrounds so we can get back to what we do best: provide great educational programs for the kids.”
I agree. But let’s also remember that making something a private operation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I say this as someone who now works in the much-maligned, for-profit education industry.
And at a time when the state is so severely in need of money, we should look at all options, even private ones. I realize that for now, the appellate court ruling has halted the sale. But that doesn’t mean a deal can’t be reached. Perhaps Beazley and Ellis can heed their own words and negotiate like adults with all the parties involved. They should at least try to sit down with Lemmon and Facilities Management West and see if a deal can be made.
They will soon realize, like I did, that Lemmon and his partners have the fair’s best interest at heart. And in the end, we just might guarantee we will have a county fair that all of us can be proud of and enjoy for years to come.
TONY DODERO is a former editor of the Daily Pilot.