Community Commentary: Former fairgrounds CEO embraces private owner

The uncertainty over the future of the Orange County Fairgrounds is an issue that hits close to home for me.

My love for the 150-acre fairgrounds began in 1964, when I exhibited for the first time as a 4-H Club member. My first fair made an impression, teaching me the value of community and our agricultural heritage.

As Orange County grows larger and more diverse, I believe the fairgrounds must be preserved as a place where the community can celebrate its past and present and look to the future.

I am pleased the local company that submitted the winning bid to buy the grounds, Facilities Management, plans to do just that.

My passion for the fairgrounds was ignited more than 46 years ago, and it has never wavered.

Not when I worked as a clerk for livestock competitions in 1972.

Not when I supervised fair competitions and exhibits in 1986.

Not when I became chief executive in 1994.

And certainly not when I retired in 2008.

Like many of my friends, I felt anxious after the Assembly voted 76 to 3 to auction off the fairgrounds.

The state had threatened to sell before. But this time they took action.

Could the Orange County Fair really disappear, as some had claimed?

What about Centennial Farm, which teaches and influences thousands of children each year?

Could my friends and former colleagues lose their jobs?

Concerned, I reached out to friends in the community and former colleagues, offering to help. That led to a relationship with the city of Costa Mesa, where I worked with companies interested in partnering with the city, including Facilities Management.

The more I learned about Facilities Management, the less concerned I became about the O.C. Fair & Event Center's future.

The company's principals are absolutely committed to protecting the fair and Centennial Farm, viewing it as a legacy for their families and all of Orange County.

The equestrian center, swap meet and all other uses still have a home here, too. What's more, working with the city and community, Facilities Management plans to make multimillion-dollar investments to maintain and enhance the grounds.

Contrast their plans with the dire situation facing the state. It could be years before investments are made in facility improvements or growth programs.

Meanwhile, a sale means $100 million for the state and about $1 million in new annual property tax revenue for the county — with a percentage going to the city.

Also very important from my perspective: Facilities Management will hire my former colleagues, offering new opportunities for development and advancement.

Compare their prospects with Facilities Management to the salary reductions and hiring freezes facing state employees. In 2010, the fair staff delivered one of the most successful fairs ever. Their reward? A 4.6% salary reduction from the state.

The bottom line: Facilities Management ownership equals an improved facility, new revenue for the community, stability for fair employees and less burden on the state.

I am so convinced that this is what's best that I am staking my legacy and commitment to the fair on it.

I have agreed to lead Facilities Management's transition to private ownership.

What about the recent controversy?

It's not unusual — now or in the past — as businesses fight for the status quo to protect their economic interests. As the details get spun to protect individual interests, it is important to consider what's best for the viability of the fairgrounds — and the community.

The state has demonstrated its desire to sell the fairgrounds. After three separate open and lengthy public bidding processes, Facilities Management twice submitted the best and most qualified bid — not just for the state but for our community.

With Facilities Management as steward, the fairgrounds we grew up loving — and want our children and their children to experience — will be protected and enhanced. The company will provide a seamless transition for employees — and for the continued operations of the fair at its Costa Mesa home.

BECKY BAILEY-FINDLEY is the former chief executive of the Orange County Fairgrounds. She has been retained by Newport Beach-based Facilities Management West to run the fairgrounds on an interim basis if the state sale of the property goes through.

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