By David Comden

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in an unprecedented move, has announced a deal to sell the Ventura County fairgrounds to Caruso Affiliated for $58 million dollars. The transaction was mentioned during a speech by the governor on Tuesday before real estate professionals in Sacramento.

In addition to the local fairgrounds, Schwarzenegger said that the Orange County fairgrounds, located in Costa Mesa, was also being sold to Caruso Affiliated for $69 million.

2“We are pleased to announce the sale of these properties and the visionary plans the developer has for them in the future,” said Schwarzenegger. “In addition, the revenue generated is an important revenue stream needed to help balance the state’s budget,” he said.

The idea of selling state properties of this magnitude was first brought up in May 2009, when the governor’s office said such sales could generate close to $1 billion for the state’s general fund. At the time, sites such as the Del Mar Fairgrounds were also included on the list but have since been withdrawn. “Too many voters liked betting on the ponies,” an undisclosed source told the L.A. Times earlier this year.

In 2009, it was determined that the Del Mar Fairgrounds north of San Diego and Seaside Park in Ventura had deed provisions that require the grounds to be used only for parks or county fairs. But through rarely used code variances, the developer was granted permission to change zoning of these parcels without the usual local municipality review and approval. In addition, these variances allowed a bypass of the usual lengthy reviews by the California Coastal Commission.

Ventura Mayor Bill Fulton, reached via cell phone last night, said he was outraged.

“I am aghast that the state didn’t consult with the city before entering into this agreement. I know it’s a tremendous loss for our community,” Fulton said.

3rrrrrrThe fairgrounds, originally deeded to the city of San Buenaventura by H.P. Foster in the 1800s, was then quit-claimed to the state back in the early part of the last century, taking it out of local control forever.

Caruso Affiliated

Caruso Affiliated is a real estate development company in Los Angeles.  It is headed by developer Rick Caruso and was founded by his father, Henry Caruso, who also founded of Dollar Rent A Car. The development company is known particularly for building higher-end outdoor shopping centers, several of which surround the Ventura County area.

Its best known project is The Grove at Farmers Market, a Disneyland-style shopping center near mid-Wilshire and ABC television studios in Los Angeles.

In addition, it has developed the Commons at Calabasas, Village at Moorpark, Promenade at Westlake and The Lakes at Thousand Oaks in this area. Planned developments include the Miramar Hotel in Montecito. That project has been stymied by the City of Santa Barbara and environmental concerns in the area.  

“We envision the city of Ventura as much easier to work with than other cities,” said Caruso spokesman Lance Watkins.

The plan calls for at least two hotels, large parcels of open space, and a surfing museum and river estuary bird watching platform.

Past concepts to be considered

In addition to its in-house design team, Caruso Associated has hired local architect Ed Campbell of U.S.A. Architects. Campbell, who created an overall vision for the fairgrounds that he presented to the Fair board in 1997, is pleased to be involved.

4His Sea Star Vista development plan, as it was known, was a $43 million project that included a world-class aquarium, astronomy center and 600-space parking structure adjacent to the fairgrounds. He said the futuristic design will fit well into the overall look of Ventura, historically known for its eclectic architecture. While the Sea Star Vista plan will not be the leading project, elements of it could be incorporated into the new plan.  

Ventura City Manager Rick Cole sees a potential silver lining in the move. “The tax dollars generated could bring in up to $9 million dollars for the city, which is needed for police, fire, libraries, street repair, parks and a new water desalination plant in the future,” Cole said.

“A destination such as this could triple tourism, adding new jobs and potential sales for all merchants,” he added.

“With the extra revenue, we may be able to reopen the Wright Library as well.”

Camille Harris, Chair of the Fairgrounds Activity Resource Trust, an organization started in 2009 to fend off the potential sale of the fairgrounds, says that the organization will continue to fight the development even though the sale has been announced.

“We cannot allow this valuable property be upgraded to its highest and best use and made available to the public as the developers have proposed” said Harris.  

At least one local economist sees huge potential in the project.

“While unprecedented, this project could turn out to be the biggest thing to happen in Ventura County history,” said Bill Watkins, executive director of Cal Lutheran University’s Center for Economic Research in Thousand Oaks. The scope of this resort project could attract 10 percent to 20 percent of the tourists that now bypass Ventura for Santa Barbara, Malibu and Solvang and the Grand Canyon,” Watkins added   

 This story is one of many in our April Fool’s Day package this week.