Del Mar Fairgrounds could receive financial boost from Congress

The San Diego County Fair seen in a file photo from 2017.
The San Diego County Fair seen in a file photo from 2017.

K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

After a difficult year of layoffs and revenue loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Del Mar Fairgrounds could get a boost from a bill in Congress that would provide $500 million in grants for agricultural fairs nationwide.

The bill, the Agricultural Fairs Rescue Act, was introduced earlier this month by two U.S. Reps. from California, Jimmy Panetta (D-Monterey) and Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) along with Billy Long (R-Mo.) and Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.).

Levin said in an interview that the pandemic “has just taken a huge toll on the Del Mar community.”

But, he added, “We’re not alone in this problem. There are fairs all throughout the country that have experienced devastating losses because of COVID.”

Levin also mentioned the bill during a brief address to the Del Mar City Council on April 19. Over the last year, council members have repeatedly pointed out that the city’s full financial recovery from the pandemic will depend on large, revenue-generating events returning to the fairgrounds.

Since COVID-related public health guidelines went into effect last year, the workforce at the state-owned Del Mar Fairgrounds has been cut from 158 to 62. Revenue dropped by about 90% in 2020. The fairgrounds received a boost from a $40.3 million allocation that Gov. Gavin Newsom made last year for distribution among all the state’s fairgrounds, but the board members who run the fairgrounds have been searching for more financial lifelines.

If the Agricultural Fairs Rescue Act is signed into law, each state’s department of agriculture would oversee the distribution of the funds. The bill has been assigned to the House Agriculture Committee.

“It’s not going to solve all the problems for every fair in the United States,” Levin said. “Some have had losses that would exceed the scope of this bill. But I hope it would make a huge dent.”

Levin, like many local residents, has memories of attending the San Diego County Fair with his family. After the cancellation of last year’s fair, the Del Mar fair board is planning a scaled-down version of the month-long event called Homegrown Fun, which will run from June 11 to July 4. Fair board members have said that the event, which will be limited in attendance, is their first big sign of a return to normal.

“I think we can all agree that we need to preserve agricultural fairs that have really become a cherished staple in our communities, not just here in San Diego County but all throughout the country,” Levin said.

A statement from the Del Mar Fairgrounds, sent by spokeswoman Jennifer Hellman, mentioned the wide array of needs that all the state’s fairgrounds provide, such as entertainment, emergency operation centers during wildfires or other disasters, and, more recently, vaccine superstations.

“Financial support from the proposed Agricultural Fairs Rescue Act would help ensure that these valuable, yet often under-appreciated assets throughout the country are preserved for both family fun and community service for generations to come,” the statement said.