Brace for parking fees at county fairgrounds |

Brace for parking fees at county fairgrounds

There’s no such thing as a free lunch – or a free parking spot at the Nevada County Fairgrounds, for much longer.

Suffering from declining revenue, aging infrastructure and the ripple effects of California’s budget crisis, the fairgrounds will start charging a flat, $5 fee for all vehicles at large, outdoor events.

At the same time, officials also are working to ensure the 100-acre property – often called “California’s Most Beautiful Fairgrounds” – continues to draw visitors and sustain itself economically.

Motorists already see parking fees at the three events sponsored by the fairgrounds itself, including August’s county fair, the Draft Horse Classic in September and the Country Christmas Faire over Thanksgiving weekend.

But soon, patrons at events staged by outside groups – including The Union’s Home and Garden Show starting April 23, Music in the Mountains concerts and KVMR’s Celtic Festival – will face a parking fee from the fairgrounds operators.

Here’s a little-known fact: Nevada County does not own the Nevada County Fairgrounds. The state does – it’s proper name is the 17th District Agricultural Association – and so California’s budget crisis is the fair’s crisis, too.

The fairgrounds’ seven permanent employees take state holidays and thrice-monthly furlough days, and a roster of seasonal employees already has been cut.

The fairgrounds generates most of its own revenue, with the state Fairs and Expositions Division providing 5.5 percent of the grounds’ $2.2 million yearly gross operating revenue.

But the Fairs and Expositions Division’s financial solvency had long been tied to the success of a dying sport – horse racing.

With the advent of online betting and Indian casinos, horse racing has lost the throne it once claimed in the world of gambling a half-century ago.

North America’s premiere horse racing company, Magna Entertainment Corp., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March 2009.

Shortfalls for the state’s 54 fairs began in the 2004-05 fiscal year and grew worse until the state severed its 77-year relationship with horse racing.

Money that used to come from racing now comes from California’s general fund, beginning with the 2009-10 fiscal year – amid a $20 billion shortfall.

“We’re not sure what’s going to happen. We need to be prudent to develop alternative revenues and reduce reliance on the (state),” fairgrounds Deputy Manager Robin Hauck said. “We have to keep these facilities up.”

When the fairgrounds is quiet, Nevada County residents use the verdant space for walking, riding and skating. It has played host to animal shows, Ferris wheels, concerts and community events since 1938.

But most of the property’s buildings were built in the early 1950s, and they are showing wear and tear.

The property is in the middle of numerous upgrade projects.

Concession booths and bathrooms in the arena are “in dire need of replacement,” Hauck said.

The Northern Mines Building already has been upgraded, and officials now are focusing on the Senior Center.

Money from the new parking fees will subsidize resurfacing projects in the parking lot and entry roads.

The amount of money the parking fee plan will raise is unclear, Hauck said, and officials don’t know whether the fee will act as a deterrent to some visitors.

At least one event sponsor affected by the fee hike is optimistic.

“I don’t think it will affect attendance, but it will be a new fee people have to absorb,” said Celtic Festival planner Amy Olsen.

Facility rental fees have not increased this year, Hauck noted.

“I appreciate them looking at other avenues rather than just putting it on the backs of (event sponsors),” Olsen added. “They’re spreading the load.”

To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail or call (530) 477-4247.

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