Fairgrounds general manager retires as layoffs loom

Tim Fennell, general manager of the Del Mar Fairgrounds, is retiring.
(John Gibbins/John Gibbins/San Diego Union-Tri)

Tim Fennell steps down after 27 years of growth in attendance, events


Del Mar Fairgrounds officials announced Tuesday, Aug. 25, that General Manager and CEO Tim Fennell has retired after 27 years as the top employee of the 22nd District Agricultural Association.

The announcement comes during a severe financial downturn for the fairgrounds after the novel coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of all large events, which provide more than 90 percent of fairgrounds revenue. Administrators announced in June they will lay off almost 60 percent of the 157 full-time employees in October.

Fennell’s duties will be taken over in an interim capacity by Deputy General Manager Carlene Moore, who came to Del Mar in February 2019 after nine years as CEO of the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga.

“We are confident in her ability to navigate our staff and organization through the challenges facing our fairgrounds,” said 22nd DAA President Richard Valdez in a written announcement.

“On behalf of the entire board, I would like to recognize Tim for the (nearly) three decades he has dedicated to the fairgrounds,” Valdez said. “We wish him all the very best as he embarks on his much-deserved retirement.”

Fennell, appointed to the job in June 1993, long advocated for reinvesting fairgrounds revenue into facilities.

During his tenure, the 22nd DAA spent $280 million on capital improvement projects including the Grandstand building, Wyland Hall, an activities center and a $5 million restoration of the San Dieguito Lagoon, according the fairgrounds news release.

Fennell grew what was the 14th largest fair, measured by attendance, to the largest fair in the United States. In recent years, more than 1.5 million people walked through the gates at Del Mar during the month-long event.

Until the pandemic brought the downturn, the fairgrounds hosted nearly 350 events, large and small, throughout the year.

“I have never worked with a more talented, hardworking and dedicated group of people than the Del Mar Fairgrounds team,” Fennell said in the news release. He could not be reached by phone Tuesday, Aug. 25.

The fairgrounds’ policy of investing revenue in facilities, not in reserves, left it vulnerable to the economic downturn.

Fennell, Valdez and Director Lisa Barkett wrote a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom in April asking for $20 million in emergency funding to help cover Del Mar’s COVID-19 financial crisis.

So far, the only state money the 22nd DAA expects to receive is a small share of the $40 million that Newsom included in the annual state budget to be distributed among the more than 50 district agricultural associations in California. That money can only be used to help defray the costs of the upcoming layoffs.

The 22nd DAA also went to the Orange County fair board to request a $5 million loan to help cover the costs of the pandemic. The Orange County directors politely said no, explaining that the times were too uncertain to share a portion of their own declining reserves.

Another revenue possibility the Del Mar fair board has explored is the opportunity to lease some of its property to a developer who would install and oversee housing for the homeless or low-income families. The one proposal submitted so far was withdrawn after widespread public opposition.

An ad hoc committee investigating the housing idea is expected to present a report at the board’s September meeting on whether it remains feasible. The nearby cities of Del Mar and Solana Beach both have expressed interest as a way to help meet the area’s shortage of low-income housing.

“I look forward to working with the new leadership at the fairgrounds to find cost savings opportunities for our two agencies during the budget crisis ... and to identify solutions that will provide long-term affordable housing on the fairgrounds property,” Del Mar Mayor Ellie Haviland said by email Tuesday, Aug. 25.

Moore, the interim general manager, has a 30-year background in the fair industry.

“While we have some challenging times ahead of us, the board and our leadership team are dedicated to the survival and recovery of the fairgrounds,” she said.

— Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune