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Supes Pony Up $1 Million in Effort to Save Horse Racing at the Fair 

Pushing aside fiscal concerns, county allocates funds for emergency fairgrounds repairs

click to enlarge If all goes as planned, horse racing will go on as normal this year.

Photo by Mark Larson

If all goes as planned, horse racing will go on as normal this year.

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved $1 million in emergency repairs for the Ferndale fairgrounds' earthquake-damaged grandstands on June 29 after a structural inspection determined the facility was currently unsafe for use.

Not moving forward could have meant canceling the races or at least limited viewing for one of the Humboldt County Fair's major draws, potentially putting the fair's place on the racing circuit in jeopardy.

Now the project is up against the clock to be completed in time for the Aug. 17 opening of the event — which generates an estimated $5 million in annual economic activity for the region.

The 4-0 decision, with Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson absent, came after what board Chair Steve Madrone described as a "robust" discussion that included questions about whether the board should allocate the funds during a difficult budget year and the responsibilities of the Humboldt County Fair Association — which manages the fairgrounds under a lease with the county.

The funds will come from the county's 2020 finance plan, which County Administrative Office Elishia Hayes recommended, saying those monies were immediately available and earmarked for infrastructure projects.

The situation unfolded quickly last week, with the HCFA board receiving a June 26 briefing from county Public Works Director Tom Mattson on a recently completed structural engineering draft report from a firm that conducted an April inspection of the grandstands, prompting the fair association to reach out to the county for assistance.

Mattson told supervisors at the special meeting that the inspection determined the roof could fall in the event of another major earthquake and a 66-foot "fall zone" around the structure needs to be cordoned off, leaving two main options: a temporary stabilization at an estimated cost of $1 million or a "controlled failure" of the roof.

Under the latter, if the racetrack was protected, he said, the races could go on, but the grandstands could not be occupied.

Either way, Mattson said there are still long-term issues with the structure, including deferred maintenance and earthquake repairs that will need to be followed up on.

"We are just stabilizing the existing facility and not making any real improvements or repairs to the damage that the facility has, but it would make it useable," he said.

Mattson said he talked to one contractor who believed they could complete the needed temporary repairs in time for the fair and noted that the HCFA does not have the funding on hand to cover the costs.

He also said that while "not a guarantee," he was "pretty confident" the county could qualify for a 75-percent reimbursement from the California Office of Emergency Services but could not say for certain. He said his initial discussions with the agency indicated the funding would be for either the interim work or permanent repairs, but not both.

Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell asked about the fair association's obligations and Mattson said the repairs, which will include installing metal supports around the structure, are not considered regular maintenance, which is the HCFA responsibility under its lease.

Speaking during public comment, HCFA board President Andy Titus noted the fair's far-reaching effects on local businesses and the importance horse racing plays in bringing in visitors to the fair.

"If we can't use the grandstands, we can't have horse racing. ... I just think this has to be a group effort. ... We are willing to work together," he said.

Interim fair CEO Jill Duffy also thanked the supervisors "for pivoting very quickly" in addressing the issue, saying the association was working closely with the county on solutions.

When the issue came back before the board, Bushnell made the motion to approve allocating funds from the finance plan and direct Mattson to move forward with the project.

While Supervisor Rex Bohn, whose First District includes the fairgrounds, came out strongly in support of the temporary repairs, saying, "This building is ours. We have to fix it. There's no other way around it," others on the board took a more cautious approach. They expressed concerns about the allocation during a difficult budget year in which the county faced a projected deficit of more than $17 million, prompting the board to consider offering severance incentives to county employees and mandatory furloughs.

Fourth District Supervisor Natalie Arroyo said she had heard from constituents on all sides of the issue and the decision was "weighing heavily on her," especially considering the county's financial straits.

She noted she appreciated the fair's contributions to the community, including education opportunities for local youth, and said her first date with her now-spouse was at the Humboldt County Fair.

"It's a very difficult time to consider anything above the $1 million," Arroyo said, adding she was "apprehensive about spending more than we can finance given the state of our budget."

Madrone had similar comments, saying he was supportive of the fair but the county was "in a world of hurt" and he was concerned about "putting so much money into a temporary fix."

Bushnell also noted that the county's finances were "not in great shape," but said she was concerned about potential impacts to local business that could suffer if the grandstands were not operational for the fair.

"I know a lot of businesses in the Rio Dell, Fortuna, Ferndale area really depend on this fair," she said.

In the end, the board backed funding the temporary fix, with the approval for the budget adjustment slated to come back before supervisors at a future meeting.

The HCFA board met later that night and voted unanimously to support a motion to "work in full cooperation and in good faith to secure funds to make repairs with the county to the grandstands, " Duffy said in an email to the Journal.

"MCI and North Coast Fabricators will be contracted with the county's Public Works Department, and they will mobilize equipment following the Fourth of July," Duffy said. "Over the next couple of days, designs will be refined with the intent of moving forward in an expeditious manner, and we expect the project to be completed in time for the Humboldt County Fair, Aug. 17 to 27."

Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that North Coast Journal Inc., which owns the Journal, has a contract with the Humboldt County Fair Association to promote this year's fair. The company's marketing department — which retains no editorial control over the Journal's reporting — is fulfilling the contract.

Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the Journal's digital editor. Reach her at (707) 442-1300, extension 323, or kim@

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Kimberly Wear

Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor of the North Coast Journal.

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