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What is the future of the Petaluma Fairgrounds?

The future of the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds is on the docket in Petaluma. In late April the city of Petaluma met with the Fair Board in a closed session. This continues a debate about how the grounds are to be managed.

As it has been since the ‘30s, the city owns the land and leases it for $1 per year to the state of California. The governor appoints select local residents to be members of a board of directors, under the auspices of the District Agriculture Associations. This board manages the fair and fairgrounds, including serving as landlords for a dozen or so tenants renting and using the grounds. However, this arrangement is being challenged as the lease is set to expire at the end of the year. Perhaps in response to public outcry, the city may open up the opportunity for a grassroots, locally controlled organization to manage the grounds.

The fairgrounds location is often referred to as being at the heart of the city. Yet currently on an average day, it is sparsely used. It looks uninspiring; old shabby buildings, no landscaping or park amenities, and it’s gated up anyways, not open to the public. Residents are eager for life to be breathed into the place, and for it to open up.

Appeals from residents are myriad in scope, but there are themes, and consensus around certain objectives. Folks harken back to the initial intention of the place, and point out where the fairgrounds is currently under achieving. For one, it is not serving as a public park. Secondly, it’s not serving the local food economy as it could be.

Local farmers are struggling in all sectors. As a produce grower, I’m aware that a dozen or so fruit and vegetable farms selling to local markets have gone under in the last few years. The reasons are many, but for one, the market is undercut by imported produce sold by corporate grocery stores and food distributors. Local farmers struggle to compete because the local post harvest-to-table portions of the food system are underdeveloped.

At the same time, many residents, though they may want healthy local food, struggle to access it in large part due to lack of availability, but also perceived affordability. Declining health outcomes suggest, or could be explained by undernourishment.

Visions for the fairgrounds include the development of a sort of food hub to support the local economy and address food insecurity. To start, a pavilion could be constructed for the farmers market, a big help for vendors and customers. Additionally, a public kitchen/cafeteria could expand upon the existing soup kitchen. The emphasis would be on buying and processing and preparing local foods, and making them available for all. The facility would serve as a food system education center as well, and a place where local food system stakeholders could organize. The fair itself could highlight local food operations without undercutting them as they do now by bringing in carnival food vendors.

The Petaluma fairgrounds can host the infrastructure on which our local food system can be bolstered. What will be needed is for a group of passionate, dedicated, skilled and experienced local people to step up and organize. Many are concerned that the city does not have the bandwidth or the resources to manage the grounds, and that may be true. However, to borrow the mantra of Live Oak Charter School, (a disgruntled current tenant on the grounds) I observe that we have the “heads, hearts and hands” in our community to bring the fairgrounds into its full, glorious potential.

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