The Big Red Barn flea market in Aromas continues to be a magnet for two main things: bargain shoppers and controversy. The last decade of founder Frances Ellingwood’s life was occupied by legal issues with Monterey County over too many vendor stalls and not enough bathrooms. When she died at age 79 in March 2018, a new battle erupted over her estate, estimated to be worth $8 million-$10 million, with two men each claiming to be an heir to the estate.
The latest controversy surrounds who will ultimately own the 33-acre site and flea market business. Last year, Rabobank called in payment of a $3 million loan taken out by Ellingwood, forcing court-appointed manager Sandra Hill to put the property up for sale, listed at $10,050,000. (Rabobank has since been acquired by Mechanics Bank.) Hill would not discuss the status of the property, but one of the men who claims to have Ellingwood’s true will, Manuel Delgadillo, says it is in escrow to developer Sal Jimenez, who owns Bankers Casino in Salinas.
Jimenez confirms he wants to buy the Big Red Barn and make the county-mandated repairs needed to expand the Sunday-only market to Saturdays and reopen the barn itself, which was closed in 2009 due to county compliance issues. Under county requirements, the property needs a waste treatment plant built by 2021, permanent restrooms and other repairs, estimated to cost in excess of $2 million, according to a sales ad for the property.
Delgadillo doesn’t think the deal will close, but if it does, says he’ll attempt to block the sale in court because he believes he will prevail in a will contest against Ellingwood’s life partner and other purported heir, Ken McPhail. In the meantime, Delgadillo is awaiting a court hearing on Jan. 20, on a separate lawsuit he filed against the estate to compensate him for unpaid hours he claims he worked helping Ellingwood manage the flea market. (A hearing on the contested wills is set for Feb. 19.)
Selling the Big Red Barn is unnecessary, Delgadillo contends, because Hill managed to secure a new loan from Santa Cruz County Bank, paying off the Rabobank loan. Hill says that loan is about to be finalized by next week but a sale is still necessary.
“The cash flow is an issue,” Hill says. “Even though the market is doing well, there are a lot of deferred issues that weren’t taken care of.” She insists there isn’t enough money to build the waste treatment plant and restrooms, which alone could cost $1.8 million, plus time is running out. Monterey County officials set a June 2020 deadline for the business to secure building permits.