$56.5 Million for our Fairgrounds? In a pig’s eye…

Reggie and the Pot Stirrer have both been doing excellent work on this, and I’ve been feeling uninspired and busy with my concert, but I suppose since this is the #1 OC blog I owe you all a quick update on the Tainted Sale of our Fairgrounds.

We’ve been discussing whether to ridicule Craig Realty’s $56.5 million offer (the highest bid at Thursday’s live auction) as too low or too high.  The fact is, it is both.  You get ironies like that when dealing with a transaction this nonsensical – selling off priceless public property against the public’s wishes at the bottom of the market.

Too Low

First of all it is not even one-third of the $180 million our big tough Governor was hoping to get for the property.  And compared to the $20 BILLION budget shortfall it’s supposedly designed to address, that is THREE ONE-THOUSANDTHS.  A third of one percent.  That’s literally what a “drop in the bucket” looks like.  And at the price of so much of our local culture and heritage.  The lowness of the bid could be incentive enough for Arnold and his DGS (Dept. of General Services) to decide to do the right thing and stop the sale after all, so do continue to harass the Governor at 916-558-3160. [By the way all your calls and faxes to our legislators were very effective, as AB 1590 is progressing with near unanimous support – so feel your power!]

Too High

But then – $56.5 million is pretty damn high as well, for a property that will supposedly be kept a Fairgrounds.  Why would Craig Realty, a developer specializing in “huge, luxury outlet malls,” choose to spend that kind of money on a property which Costa Mesa council and citizens are determined to zone in perpetuity – as a Fairgrounds that has been coasting along comfortably bringing in only $2 million a year in profits?  Even Arnold promised (vaguely) to “Keep the Fair a Fair,” and Mr. Craig himself has been going around telling anyone who will listen (including the Pot Stirrer in a  40-minute phone conversation) that his “intention” is to “keep the Fair,” albeit with some unspecified “improvements.”

With all respect, that’s exactly what any developer would be saying right now, as they attempt to defuse the minefield of popular and legislative opposition to the sale.    To get a more likely idea of what would happen if Craig Realty acquires the property, we need to look at what the company actually does, and question whether it makes any financial sense for them to keep the Fairgrounds anything like what we know and love after dropping $56.5 million on it (plus untold transitional costs.)

And they’re sure putting no promises in writing.  When pressed by the Register’s Ellyn Pak, the partners, not being total shameless fibbers, hemmed and hawed:

OCR: How about the fair and the valuable assets there?

MANLEY: The hard part for a business person is to give an absolute and say keep it there forever. The goal is to have the fair be there forever and be better. … It’s not that there’s some ulterior motive. It’s just trying to be honest from the beginning and saying we want to make it the best that it can be from where it is now. From a business standpoint, it wouldn’t be smart to change the biggest uses of it now, which could be the equestrian, fair and Market Place.

CRAIG: I’m not capable of guaranteeing anything just as no one else is. Would we be willing to work hard with a lot of other people to keep it there? Absolutely. We think it’s a great use, but we think there are some other things that can be done with it.

And as mightily as the Costa Mesa council and voters strive to protect the Fair with zoning and specific plans, those are still like a levee you throw up and then cross your fingers.  Former Mayor Sandy Genis has reminded us how easy it is for a clever, patient developer with deep pockets like Craig Realty to eventually get around any restrictions, as we saw last year in Redlands.

So there you have it, a bid that is both absurdly low and suspiciously high – a reason for the DGS to cancel the sale, AND a reason for all us citizens to still be up in arms.  A couple more things…

Even if we lose this battle – WHICH WE HAVEN’T YET – we’ve still struck a decisive blow in the larger war against the planned Piratization of California’s prized public properties.  Jose Solorio made this point in an article last week that I can’t for the life of me find:  When the Governor’s men think of moving on to sell other Fairgrounds, parks and beaches, they will remember the furious and unexpected opposition of Orange County’s citizens and politicians, and think again.

And this battle is still far from over.  The DGS has till March 8 to decide whether to accept or reject this bid, and to stop this sale altogether, while meanwhile Jose’s AB 1590 is speeding through the legislature.  Urge Arnold and his men to reject all bids, stop the sale, and sign AB 1590 – contact him by e-mail, phone calls (916-558-3160) and fax (916-558-3160, free at https://faxzero.com)

Or maybe, as Brad the Derailer suggests, Maria will listen: http://www.firstlady.ca.gov/contact/

…and Happy Rainy Martin Luther King Day!

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official political troubadour of Anaheim and most other OC towns. Regularly makes solo performances, sometimes with his savage-jazz band The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.