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City, County near deal on Fairgrounds

An agreement over the sale of the Napa County Fairground to the city of Calistoga is imminent, according to multiple sources familiar with the deal but not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations.

Holly Dawson, spokeswoman for the Napa County Board of Supervisors, said that the board plans to vote on a formal purchase agreement at either next week’s meeting or on Jan. 23. 

Once that step is taken, she said, expectations are that the Calistoga City Council would consider that same purchase agreement.

The deal becomes final only if both sides adopt the purchase agreement.

No dollar figures were released.

Calls to Calistoga Mayor Donald Williams and the city’s public information officer, Jed Matcham, were not returned by press time.

Councilmen Scott Cooper and Kevin Eisenberg declined to comment.

The pending action by the supervisors would represent the first formal and public action aimed at selling the 70-acre property since the two sides agreed more than a year ago on a $16 million sale price.

To finance the property acquisition and to pay for improvements at the county-owned Fairgrounds, the City Council put a $27.5 million bond measure before voters in March.

Led by opposition from the Calistoga business community, the bond measure was overwhelmingly rejected. The major complaint from opponents was that the bond measure would have increased property taxes on many businesses by tens of thousands of dollars.

Beginning in the early summer, a subcommittee made up of two supervisors and two City Council members have been negotiating over terms.

Given the outcome of the March election, members of the council have appeared to be sensitive to the cost of the property.

Some Calistoga residents have been adamant that the city should not overpay for the property.

Dana Cole, a former member of the Fairgrounds oversight board, has pointed out that most of the money used by the county to buy the property came from the state in the 1930s for the specific purpose of establishing a county fair facility. 

Toward that end, the city made a low-ball $2 million offer in September for the land. That dollar amount is roughly consistent with what the county originally spent to buy most of the Fairgrounds, adjusted for inflation.

Even if both the supervisors and the City Council come to agreement, big hurdles remain.

The cost of the acquisition will be key to gaining public acceptance.

Resident Doug Allan, a member of the city Planning Commission, spoke for many just a few weeks ago when he told the Tribune that he would be “strongly opposed” if the sale price was close to the $16 million the two sides agreed to last year. 

Allan noted that in recent months, local residents have been asked to accept a large increase in water and sewer rates.

How the city might finance the purchase will also be of great interest. Political observers believe the City Council will be unlikely to go back to the voters with a property tax increase. That means that the city’s general fund would come into play in one way or another.

Although city coffers remain flush with hotel bed tax funds, there remain major expenses to be dealt with, including the repair of century-old sewers and streets.

The Fairgrounds, which served as the official site of the Napa County Fair for more than 80 years, fell into financial trouble beginning in 2011, when hundreds of thousands of dollars in state support were eliminated. The Fairgrounds, including its golf course, RV park and raceway, were closed by the county in 2019.

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