Friday, June 16, 2017

Grand jury calls on Napa County to pay more attention to Fairgrounds

A grand jury report on the current state of the Napa County Fairgrounds released last week summarized the facility’s shortcomings and included recommendations for its future.
The grand jury said the Fairgrounds “has been the victim of long-term neglect, both in terms of the maintenance of the on-site facilities and in terms of the lack of direction in the purposes to which the site is put … and over decades, the County Board of Supervisors has given little attention to the site, its development, or the uses to which it is put.”
Supervisor Diane Dillon declined to comment and said that the Board of Supervisors will respond to the Grand Jury report within its allotted 90 days to reply. Carlene Moore, CEO of the Fairgrounds, also declined to comment and deferred to the supervisors’ future response.
Considered a “watch dog” committee, the Napa County grand jury operates under the authority of Napa Superior Court, which appoints 19 citizens to serve for one-year terms that run from June 30 to July 1, and acts largely as an advisory group.
The grand jury probe stemmed from a citizen complaint at the same time golfers complained publicly about the condition of the Mount St. Helena Golf Course, which is at the Fairgrounds. The condition of the course had deteriorated largely due to faulty irrigation, and Moore and the Fair Association, which oversees the Fairgrounds’ operations, formed an ad hoc committee to improve communications between the golfing community and the Fairgrounds to help identify problem areas.
Ira Warm, a member of the men’s golf club who was among the initial complainants, thanked the Fair Association board at a recent meeting for the improvements on the golf course. The grand jury said that it “learned that essentially all of the golf course maintenance is being done by volunteers from the Mount St. Helena Men’s Club, not by fairgrounds staff,” but there are volunteers who do not golf at all, and a couple who are not part of the Men’s Club, Moore said.
The grand jury said, “While the problems with the current state of the Fairgrounds are considerable, the grand jury decided to focus on where to go from here, rather than to dwell on responsibility for how things got to be in their current state” recommending that the Board of Supervisors “assume a proactive position and take full responsibility for the future of the Fairgrounds, and that it work cooperatively with the City of Calistoga to transform the facility from a relic of a fading tradition into a vital addition to the upper Napa Valley community.”
The report acknowledged that the City of Calistoga and the Napa County Board of Supervisors have been exploring a JPA (Joint Powers of Authority), but did not make clear that the JPA concept was initiated by the Napa County Fair Association and Moore.
The Board of Directors of the Napa County Fair Association and Moore have long conceded that the facilities there are in need of overdue maintenance and upgrades, and have stated as much in board meetings. State funding was severely cut in 2011 when the state shifted its funding source from pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing, which was the sole source of revenue for fairs, to the general fund.
The association operates on a series of five-year contracts with the county, the structure of which is prohibitive in finding other sources of funding to replace the lost state money. It is one of the reasons the association’s board and Moore are seeking the JPA, which would likely help them plan and carry out any improvements to the Fairgrounds, some of which may come from an opportunities assessment that the Grand Jury also comments on in its report.
“It was immediately clear to the Grand Jury that the Fairgrounds Association did not have, and had little prospect of obtaining, the funding necessary to implement any of the plans presented to it by the consultants,” the report said, but the association and Moore have made it clear in board meetings that while no decisions have been made for the direction of the Fairgrounds, based on the consultants’ assessments, they are seeking the JPA specifically to find new funding sources to make improvements, some ideas of which may come from the opportunity assessment.
The report also addresses the decline in attendance and revenue of the Napa County Fair, and the reduction of the Fair from four days to one that started in 2014.
“The Napa County Fair itself is in serious decline, with its continued operation in doubt,” the report said, but does not indicate that Moore has reported that finding carnivals for the Fourth of July is increasingly difficult given the cost of putting on such events, and competing fairs in the region dilute attendance. Moore and board members such as Anne Steinhauer have said that the Fairgrounds will always put on a Fourth of July Fair, but that it will not be the same as it was several years ago. In some years since the reduction of four days to one day, events that used to be held during the four-day celebration have still been held, but at a different time of the year.
One recommendation from the grand jury is that the county should “contract the operation of the Calistoga Raceway, the Mount St. Helena Golf Course, and the Calistoga RV Park to concessionaires knowledgeable and competent to operate those enterprises efficiently and profitably,” but Moore has said that the five-year contract structure doesn’t provide for entering into long-term contracts with concessionaires.
June 14, 2017
The Weekly Calistogan
By Anne Ward Ernst

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