VALLEJO — Michael Paluszak recently walked by the vast metal grandstands at the Solano County fairgrounds that during the annual fairs of years past held cheering crowds watching horse races.
Those grandstands sit empty and weeds grow through the cracks in the asphalt in front of them. The track where horses once ran has weeds. That electric, adrenaline-pumped atmosphere of people rooting for their picks charging down the final stretch is gone forever.
“Forty years ago, horse racing was king,” said Paluszak, general manager for the Solano County fairgrounds. “Today horse racing, even where there is horseracing, is struggling to stay alive.”
Much has changed since the fairgrounds opened in 1950, including the end of horse racing there in 2009. Now Solano County is planning what would be the biggest change of all for its 149-acre property where Interstate 80 and Highway 37 meet – almost a complete transformation.
The county is looking at a $94 million, 25-year plan to redevelop, renovate and rejuvenate the fairgrounds. Proposals call for creating in phases a regional showplace, with room for the annual fair, but also the addition of shops and restaurants along a creekside park, a 100,000-square-foot exhibition hall and perhaps an amusement park.
The new fairgrounds would be “an iconic, region-serving public entertainment destination” with both public uses and private development, according the Solano 360 Specific Plan.
It’s either a bonanza or a boondoggle in the making, depending on who is talking. Either way, it’s an issue that the Solano County Board of Supervisors could be dealing with for years to come. At this point the county has a plan that can be done in phases, but has yet to decide to move forward with any financing.
The venture is called Solano 360 because the idea is to make the fairgrounds a bustling place beyond the five days annually that the fair takes place there. Vallejo is helping with the effort.
Solano County has generated hundreds of pages in reports and studies on its vision. These pages give an in-depth look at what could be the future of the fairgrounds.
One component of the county’s plan concerns the area where the annual, five-day summer fair takes place. This area would continue to be publicly maintained and operated as the site of the fair.
Paluszak stood on the concourse of the fairgrounds, a long street lined by lawns, trees and exhibition buildings, ending at the livestock area. This is the backbone of the annual fair, familiar to fairgoers.
What worked in 1950 still works today. The county’s planned transformation leaves this basic layout in place.
“You’re going to recognize it as the fairgrounds, but it is going to be greatly improved,” Paluszak said.
Some of the buildings are to remain with face-lifts, such as McCormack Hall and the livestock buildings. Others are to be replaced.
The most dramatic change in this area is to be the construction of a new exhibition hall to replace the existing version. A 20,000-square-foot hall would be replaced with one that is 72,000 square feet, of which 50,000 square feet would be exhibition space and the rest lobbies, restrooms and other rooms. The exhibition space could later be doubled.
With the existing exhibition hall and McCormack Hall, the fairgrounds attracts such events as gun shows, dog shows, Hispanic dances and dance competitions, Paluszak said. Business is good, he said.
A bigger, better exhibition hall would open opportunities to book conventions and conferences, Paluszak said. Because of Solano County’s location between Sacramento and the Bay Area, the fairgrounds is well positioned to attract these type of events, he said.
Then Paluszak headed to the central and southern parts of the fairground. This is a world of asphalt and unpaved, weedy areas with some trees, hardly a scenic spot. The county’s plan would add a creek with a park and a Main Street-like area with shops and restaurants.
“You’d be looking at restaurant patios and other areas to enjoy the creek, enjoy the view,” Paluszak said as he looked at the scene.
He moves on to the horse racing area, which has a golf course in the middle of the track and those seldom-used grandstands. All would be gone, replaced with parking and an entertainment and commercial area that could be an amusement park.
The county would continue to own even the private enterprise areas, using land leases to make the developments a reality.
A public financing plan by Sacramento-based Goodwin Consulting Group tells how to pay for this fairgrounds of the future, though the plan also states that the timing, progress and mix of costs and funding sources may change.
Installing roads, sewer lines, drainage and water lines could cost $37 million. Demolishing existing fair buildings could cost $4.5 million. Renovating and building new fair buildings could cost $49.4 million. Offsite regional facilities could cost about $4.9 million.
That’s a total of $95.8 million, though minor reimbursements would reduce the total to $93.5 million. Turning a 60-year-old fairgrounds into an iconic regional destination doesn’t come cheap.
One scenario has the county issuing in phases $94 million in various types of bonds in phases over a number of years, perhaps as many as 25 years. This would include about $64 million for public uses such as the annual fair area and $26 million to upfront infrastructure that would later be needed for the private enterprise ventures on the property.
Money to pay the county back would come from fairgrounds revenues and a tax-sharing agreement with Vallejo involving the private enterprises that locate at the fairgrounds. Private enterprise would pay back its share of infrastructure costs through an assessment.
Ultimately, the bonds would be secured by the county’s general fund if revenue streams fell short of expectations, said David Freudenberger of Goodwin Consulting Group. The idea is to do the project in phases, be as prudent as possible and issue the least amount of bonds as possible, he said.
“The financing plan is just that, it’s a plan, it’s a strategy based on a point of time,” he said. “As the project builds out, as more information and better information becomes available, the strategy could change.”
For example, he said, it’s possible a master developer at some point could step forward and become a partner in the venture, he said.
The project wouldn’t be an immediate money-maker. Solano County could lose $3.3 million for Phase One from years one to five, a county report said.
“There aren’t many commercial projects that begin making money on the first day,” Supervisor John Vasquez said at the June 11 county Board of Supervisors meeting, when the board last discussed the fair project.
Phase II from years six to 15 would make the county $7.1 million and repay a $4.4 million loan the county made several years ago to get the project ready to build, the report said.
When the project is completed, it could bring in $3.7 million annually for the county while costing $500,000 annually, the Goodwin Consulting Group report said. Expenses would include $150,000 for a project manager. Vallejo could net $1.7 million annually.
A group called Vallejoans For Responsible Growth has challenged these calculations. It hired Davis Taussig & Associates to look at the financial studies.
David Taussig & Associates said that the study uses too low a number when calculating employee impacts on Vallejo services. A higher factor is standard fiscal practice, it said.
Plug the higher factor into the calculations and Vallejo would see increased costs of $17 million and only $5 million in increased revenues. The city would not break even on the fairgrounds venture until 2046, David Taussig & Associates states in a letter.
Vallejo resident Nathan Stout at the June 11 county Board of Supervisors meeting said the county’s financial study had made “a hugely important mistake.”
But Tom Sinclair disagreed that the financial studies made a mistake by using the number that it did. Sinclair is with Municipal Service Group, which is overseeing the consulting work for the county on the fairgrounds project.
“There is no single standard that’s used by economic consulting firms for their projects,” he said.
Assistant County Administrator Nancy Huston said the project has 100 acres of public use, which makes it different from private use development. Both she and Sinclair said money that Vallejo pays to the county would be based on revenues.
County Supervisor Jim Spering said whatever private firms the county teams up with will do further fiscal analysis that the county will see. Initial fiscal exposure would be limited and the county and city will continue scrutinizing the financial obligations, he said.
The Board of Supervisors on June 11 approved a development agreement with Vallejo, though it has yet to approve any bond issuances. That would take future votes.
Spering has championed the project.
He has experience with redevelopment. He became mayor of Suisun City in 1986, when the city’s waterfront had dilapidated buildings, a four-block, crime-infested area of fourplexes and an oil tank farm.
When he left the mayor’s chair to become supervisor in 2006, the waterfront had been transformed. A marina, town plaza, waterfront restaurants and subdivision with Victorian-like homes have been built.
Now Spering is looking at the county fairgrounds at Interstate 80 and Highway 37. Once again, he sees land with a use that falls far short of its potential.
“We have property that for all intents and purposes is very blighted,” Spering said.
Benefits of the project include providing more parking for Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, the adjacent amusement park that is Vallejo’s biggest employer, he said. A new fair exhibit hall will draw thousands of people to Vallejo, he said.
“Projects like this, if you don’t have some public investment, it will never happen,” he said.
But Suisun City had the advantage of using its redevelopment agency for its waterfront project. It put virtually the entire city boundaries in a redevelopment district, than used the future property tax increases to fund bonds. The city bought land, demolished buildings and sold it to developers, as well as put in infrastructure.
California in 2012 dissolved redevelopment agencies. Solano County and Vallejo must find other ways to pay for a redeveloped fairgrounds.
Spering said that the county didn’t use a redevelopment agency anyway. The inability to do so now under the new state law won’t affect the financing for the upcoming, public part of the project, he said.
Supervisors Skip Thomson and Linda Seifert have expressed concern about the proposed fairgrounds financial obligations for the county. Thomson called himself risk-adverse by nature and wondered if this is the right time for the project.
Both voted in favor of the development agreement on June 11. That doesn’t oblige them to vote in favor of financing at a future date.
The Solano County Fairgrounds caused a stir when it debuted 63 years ago.
Solano County already had the Dixon May Fair in the rural north county. But that fair isn’t controlled by county government. The county Board of Supervisors decided in 1946 to establish its own fair.
In September 1950, all was ready. The fair lined up Gov. Earl Warren, who later became a U.S. Supreme Court justice, to cut a ribbon across the main entrance on opening day.
The Fairfield-based Solano Republican – predecessor of the Daily Republic – praised the fair for being a good debut effort. It then blasted what it detected as a Vallejo focus, even calling the event the “Vallejo County Fair.”
Solano Republican Columnist David Weir – he now has a Fairfield school named after him – noted 1950 wasn’t the first time the county had attempted a fair. It had a fair in 1930 in Fairfield, he wrote.
“And if we had a supervisor with as much backbone as a caterpillar, that fair would have been permanent right here at Fairfield, the county seat, where it belongs,” Weir wrote.
But that’s history. The county fairgrounds is in Vallejo, not Fairfield. The county is trying to move from the Fair of the Past to the Fair of the Future.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.