Petaluma used to be known as the Egg Capital of the World. Later it became known as Telecom Valley, as telecommunications companies flocked to the area.
But as we embark on the second decade of the 21st century, what will it become known for now? And can it be that the fairgrounds, located right smack in the middle of town, could help forge this new identity?
The city currently leases the parcel to the Fourth District Agricultural District for $1 a year. In addition to the fair, held each June, the site holds the Petaluma Speedway, Airport Express, Java Hut, two schools and hosts auctions and private events such as weddings.
But with a $1.3 million annual budget, it only about "breaks even," said fair board director James Burleson, something many say can change with proper infrastructure improvements and investment.
On Wednesday, the board held a special meeting, open to the public, to discuss the fairgrounds' future and how to "monetize" the property while honoring the town's deep agricultural roots.
One idea, brought up by Planning Commissioner Melissa Abercrombie is to build a public market featuring local food manufacturers and restaurants, similar to Napa’s Oxbow Market, that would draw gourmands from all the Bay Area.
“We can’t continue to look at new development only in terms of how much revenue per acre will it generate,” Abercrombie said. “Instead, we need to ask ourselves what kind of value added are we providing for the community…I love the fairgrounds and my family comes here a lot, but you have to make it aesthetically pleasing.”
Among Abercrombie’s other ideas: connect the fairgrounds to the SMART station on Lakeville and D and create a “corridor” for visitors to stroll to the area. Another is turning a portion of the grounds into sports fields.
Building on Petaluma’s burgeoning gourmet and sustainable food movement is an idea that resonated with many at the meeting, including the city’s Economic Development Director Ingrid Alverde.
“Where Petaluma stands out is the food industry and we have some really standout companies,” said Alverde, who was hired in 2011 and tasked with attracting new companies to town and keep existing ones from leaving.
“I would love to see a space that would draw tourists and give local companies a venue…some type of facility where you have space for industrial level product and something that is an incubator for food production companies. People driving from San Francisco are driving to Sonoma for food and wine and are totally missing what Petaluma offers. This could be a real win, win.”
Another idea is converting one of the halls into a large conference center that would be able to host trade shows and special events. The only venues currently available are the Petaluma Sheraton, the Lucchesi Community Center and the Veterans’ Hall on Petaluma Boulevard South, none of which have enough capacity for large events.
Whatever happens, the first thing to agree on is whether to renew the fairgrounds’ lease, which many call unfair to the city since the Agricultural District keeps all revenue from hall rentals and the fair. The fair board says they are willing to discuss an agreement that’s more “favorable” to the city.
“It all boils down to one thing—how do we pay for it? In order to accomplish all these things, we have to have private enterprise come in and build something because the city sure can’t afford it and we can’t afford it,” said board president Burleson.
“But once that is accomplished, we can share revenue and we can make it fair to all considered. We have to cooperate and we have to reciprocate.”
What would YOU like to see the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds become? Share your thoughts in the comments below.