Fairgrounds facing dire options

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Fairgrounds facing dire optionsDesert Empire Fairgrounds may be the next economic casualty of COVID-19 restrictions, if social distancing limitations continue as anticipated in California.

Across the state, fairground associations — including DEF — are lobbying Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office to provide $300 million to offset losses that threaten closure of all 78 facilities. Locally, Executive Director Chip Holloway is soliciting support from Ridgecrest residents to help keep the asset open in the valley.

DEF and other fairgrounds have struggled financially for more than a decade, ever since the state office restricted funding. Holloway noted that the fall fair, while an important community gathering to many, is not the main revenue generator for DEF. But with one of the largest venues in town, the fairgrounds is home to more than 150 events each year.

Ridgecrest Gymnastics Academy, one of the main tenants at DEF, announced that it is closing its doors (a decision reportedly expedited by the loss of revenue associated with forced closures during the state lockdown).

The same lockdown order cost DEF the Ridgecrest Music Festival in April. Also under threat are the Fourth of July fireworks celebration, the Viewfinders Grand Prix in October, the November Gem and Mineral Show, Santa’s Art Shop in December and the fair.

The only steady revenue still coming in is from the RV park.

These events would all be classified as Stage 4 operations, which reports from the governor’s office indicate will not resume until a vaccine is adopted (a process that is at least 12-18 months away by most estimates.

“I think we are better off than a lot of other fairs in California, but we are obviously feeling the pain,” said Holloway. He has already laid off all DEF employees and cannot afford to sustain the installation indefinitely without an infusion.

DEF has joined the Kern County and Antelope Valley fairgrounds to appeal to House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy for special funding. “We were asked to present a 2020 budget to the state assuming no fair and no 2020 events,” Holloway wrote in a letter to his board.

“We would lose more than $150,000 in 2020. Obviously, that is not sustainable.”

Holloway said he is not sure what the state will decide. “If they go by the fair, we have the worst attendance of any in the state. That makes me nervous.”

The silver lining, he said, is that the state may determine that providing financial relief for the state fairs is less costly in the long run than taking over stewardship of the facilities.

Under the present model of local control, DEF remains an asset to the community — not only as a venue for members of the community but an attraction to visitors. The Grand Prix brings some 4,000 visitors to the Indian Wells Valley — where hospitality and restaurant industries benefit from the disposable income that comes with that traffic.

In addition to attempts to lobby for emergency funding, Holloway is continuing to explore other ways to remain solvent during the pandemic.

Rodeos and motocross events may still be allowed, he said, if social-distancing guidelines are enforced for spectators and participants.

Another lead Holloway is chasing is using DEF as a base camp for the thousands of contractors expected to visit over the next few years to accomplish the earthquake repairs on base.

Lead agencies have expressed concerns over the last several months that the city does not have adequate lodging options to house those visitors, and the concept of a “man camp” set up as temporary living quarters is being explored.

“I think our location would be perfect for that,” said Holloway.

He noted that the fairgrounds was also used to stage more than 70 state, federal and emergency agencies during the earthquakes last summer.

“This isn’t about having a fair, this is about having a premier facility,” he said.

“This is a valuable asset that many have invested in supporting over the years, but we are sadly in a very dangerous position right now due to no fault of our own,” Holloway wrote to his boardmembers.

“Our hearts go out to so many of our sponsors who are also suffering and those affected in other ways, but the reality is this virus may do damage for years after we have conquered the sickness if we don’t get opened soon.”

Pictured: Fire engines lined up at the Desert Empire Fairgrounds were among scores of emegency service assets that staged at the facility during the earthquakes. “This isn’t only about having a fair, this is about having a premier facility,” said CEO Chip Holloway. — Courtesy photo

Story First Published: 2020-05-22