At the March 3 Seaside City Council meeting, as the council reviewed the fifth version of the economic impact analysis of the proposed Monterey Downs development, a curious piece of information slipped out.
When Councilman Jason Campbell asked questions of James Edison of Willdan Financial Services, who prepared the report, Campbell inquired about a detail relating to one of the most controversial aspects of the plan: a sports arena and horse racing track.
While there has been no public discussion over the last several years that the track and arena might be publicly owned, the report read: “Revenues generated, such as property tax, ticket fees, parking taxes, etc., will be needed to fund construction and operations.”
As Campbell asked for clarification about what that meant, Beth Palmer, Monterey Downs’ chief operations officer, stepped up to provide an answer.
“It would be public as a state-owned facility as part of an agricultural district,” Palmer said, citing the racetrack in Del Mar as an example.
The Del Mar racetrack, which opened in 1937, is owned and operated by the state’s 22nd District Agricultural Association, which covers San Diego County. How a similar scenario could unfold locally might surprise some: by way of the Monterey County Fairgrounds.
County fairs and fairgrounds in California are all managed by one of the state’s 52 agricultural associations, and Monterey County’s is managed by the 7th District Agricultural Association, which was formed in 1936.
While it’s theoretically possible that the 7th District could build and operate a race track and sports arena at Monterey Downs, Kelly Violini, chief executive officer of the Monterey County Fair & Event Center, says the only discussion about that possibility came in 2012, when Downs developers gave a presentation to the district’s board.
“After that point, there has been no discussion, no meetings,” she says.
In order for the scenario to play out, the district would have to overcome a gauntlet of approvals. First, the 7th district’s nine board members – who are all appointed by the governor – would have to vote to pursue it. Then, approvals would have to come from a slew of state agencies: the Department of General Services, Department of Finance and Department of Food and Agriculture.
Additionally, DFA spokesman Steve Lyles writes by email, the “governor’s office and/or the Legislature might become involved if there is any resistance (by the local community) to the move.”
Violini stresses that in no way has the district, or its board, speculated about a future move to the Downs project site. She also says that while the 7th District is a state agency, it receives no financial assistance from the state, and can’t speak to how such a project would be financed.
“No precedent has been set for it,” she says.
The scenario, if it were to play out, would still be several years in the offing: According to the Monterey Downs specific plan, the arena and racetrack would be built in the sixth phase of the project, or about 12 years after the project breaks ground on 550 acres of the former Fort Ord.
Downs developer Brian Boudreau declined to comment.