FAIRFIELD — Candidates for two Solano County supervisor seats on the June 3 ballot have various opinions about the county’s fairgrounds proposals to create an iconic, regional draw.
The $94 million, 25-year plan will be a bonanza for the county and Vallejo. Or a bust, with taxpayers holding the bag. Or maybe the project should be done differently. Or at a different time.
Incumbent Jim Spering represents the 3rd District that includes much of Fairfield and Suisun City. His challengers are Fairfield City Councilwoman Pam Bertani, Steven Lowe and Michael Oman.
Incumbent John Vasquez represents the 4th District that includes much of Vacaville and Dixon. His challengers are Dixon City Councilman Thom Bogue and Vacaville residents Gerald Clift and Eugene Ray.
Spering for the past few years has championed the idea of renovating the Vallejo fairgrounds. He wants to see it become a regional draw with not only the annual county fair, but also shops, a creekside park, a bigger exhibition hall bustling with events and other attractions.
“It’s probably one of the prime commercial spots in Northern California,” Spering said. “It has about 250,000 cars going by it every single day.”
Having the county continue to maintain the deteriorating structures there is not feasible, Spering said.
With a new exhibition hall, Spering sees the part of the property used for the annual fair having various types of events year-round. Visitors will use the commercial part of the property and vice versa, so that the public and commercial portions complement each other, he said.
A strong economy would change the dynamics of the plan and greatly accelerate the project time line, Spering said. A master developer for the property might step forward, he said.
Critics have worried that, if the project fails, taxpayers might get stuck paying for millions of dollars in bonds.
“Are there guarantees in anything we do?” Spering said. “No. But I think we’re in a very good position with the location of that property of making it successful.”
Bertani said the county’s fairgrounds redevelopment plan is a good idea because it puts the property to its highest and best use. But an event that happened at the June 11, 2013, Board of Supervisors meeting caught her attention.
Supervisors that day talked about the financial study the county had done for the project by Goodwin Consulting Group. A group called Vallejoans for Responsible Growth said it had hired Davis Taussig & Associates to look at the financial study.
Davis Taussig & Associates concluded that the Goodwin study used too low a number when calculating employee impact services on Vallejo. Use the number that is standard fiscal practice 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 project until 2046.
County project consultants defended the Goodwin study.
As a result of this disagreement, Bertani wants the county to look further at the math used in the financial study. She would want to know as supervisor that she’s not leaving taxpayers holding the bag on a project that the county didn’t vet up front, she said.
“At this point, I say more due diligence is warranted,” Bertani said.
Oman has his own ideas for the fairgrounds. He wants to see money that Gov. Jerry Brown has allotted to start building a bullet train used instead to extend Bay Area Rapid Transit from Richmond to the fairgrounds.
The fairgrounds could have seven office towers of 200,000 square feet, said Oman, who works in commercial real estate. That would create the biotech campus.
“Biotech is certainly an industry that’s not going by the wayside,” he said. “It’s a market investment for us as a county.”
Whether he and Solano County could convince state officials to divert bullet train money to BART remains to be seen. Although the proposed bullet train linking Los Angeles and the Bay Area is controversial, it is one of Brown’s priorities.
BART officials estimate the cost to build rail line at more than $125 million per mile. That would put the cost of a Vallejo extension at more than $2 billion.
But bringing BART to Solano County has been a recurring dream. Original plans for BART from 1957 called for the system to extend into Solano County, going to Vallejo, then north to Napa, then back through Jameson Canyon to Fairfield. In 1990, the BART president urged the county to support a BART extension to Benicia, Vallejo and Fairfield.
“I think the fairgrounds offer an incredible opportunity,” Oman said.
Lowe could not be reached to give his views on the fairgrounds.
Vasquez, like Spering, has backed the fairgrounds plan developed by the county.
The fair itself only needs a portion of the property. The county can get rid of the horse racing track and horse stalls, with horse racing gone, he said.
The county wouldn’t float $94 million in bonds all at once, but would move in increments, Vasquez said.
“You’ll be able to hold back or move forward as the need occurs,” Vasquez said. “The property is owned by us. What’s 150 acres of commercial property worth along Interstate 80? The land is worth a lot.”
Yet he doesn’t favor simply selling the land.
“If we were just to turn it over to private development, they’d do what they want very quickly because they need to recoup it,” Vasquez said.
The county, in contrast, can afford to be patient and do the development right, he said.
“Even if we didn’t do anything but the first phase that puts in the entertainment center, we’ve still made a commitment to the fair to improve the fair itself,” Vasquez said. “That will start making money on its own.”
Bogue is more cautious.
“I love the idea. It really fits what’s going on in that area and I think it would enhance the area tremendously,” Bogue said.
He said the proposed project subscribes to his philosophy that the county should be looking for ways to generate revenues to offset costs.
For Bogue, it’s a matter of timing. He isn’t ready to issue bonds quite yet.
“We just got through some real tough economic times,” Bogue said. “You usually build up your foundation and get everything financially secure again and build up your reserves before you would consider doing some investments.”
Clift, who works on his family’s farm near Vacaville, said he would try to stop funding on the fairgrounds project and would not vote for bonds.
“I just don’t think this is the time in our economy to be spending money on it, especially when we could be spending it on roads or other county services,” he said.
Traffic is already bad in the area, he said.
“I can’t imagine trying to make it worse,” he said.
Clift went further. He said the budget to operate the fairgrounds as it exists today is not sustainable, apart from any renovation plans. If the county cannot substantially reduce operating costs, it needs to sell the property or rent it to someone who can use it more efficiently, he said.
The fairgrounds budget for 2014 calls for $3.05 million in revenues and $3.37 million in expenses. Savings in the fairgrounds budget are to fill the $323,927 hole. A county report attributed the loss in large part to roof repairs and other maintenance projects at the aging facility.
Ray, a real estate agent and martial arts instructor, wants to hear more ideas from local people for the fairgrounds property. He mentioned Oman’s idea of having research offices there and a BART extension to the fairgrounds as an example.
He wants to see if a better idea than the county’s for the site can be found before having the county issue bonds.
“That location is incredible right there,” Ray said, noting the fairgrounds is near Interstate 80 and Highway 37, with Interstate 680 and Highway 12 just over the hills.
He talked of finding the highest and best use for the land.
“My gut tells me there’s more that we can do than what they’re doing,” Ray said.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.