When rock stars are not in residence, when the fair is not in town, the Napa Valley Expo grounds can be a plain-looking place. But in the coming decade or more, directors of the fairground in downtown Napa have ambitions to revive and expand its exhibition halls and outdoor gathering places – a renewal that came into clearer focus during 2017.
The Expo of the future may be anchored by a new multipurpose hall with commercial kitchens, a two-story building for fair offices and community gatherings, and an open-sided pavilion to host the annual Town & Country Fair’s Junior Livestock Auction.
Such were the upgrades promised by Expo leaders in January when they showed drafts of a fairground overhaul estimated to cost $65 million. In addition to modernizing its facilities – and replacing event spaces damaged by the 2014 earthquake and later torn down – the master plan aims at creating a greater welcoming for what has become its busiest attraction: the BottleRock music festival, which draws tens of thousands of fans to Napa each May and whose directors are pumping $8 million into the Expo over a decade.
The Expo’s renewal would roll out in stages, and see some buildings disappear to make room for replacements.
With the Junior Livestock Auction shifting to a new pavilion structure, existing barns would be demolished, their place taken by an enlarged RV park to generate more revenue. Zinfandel Hall, which survived the quake, also is slated for removal in the long run, although it would remain in use until the pavilion, main meeting hall and other fixtures are built.
Most of the Expo’s metamorphosis will require new funding streams. Fair officials earlier this year estimated 69 percent of the upgrade bill will depend on a mix of private and public funds, possibly including bonds, a new sales tax or forming a money-raising special district.
Despite the years of construction and fundraising yet to come, smaller signs of the change began appearing at the Expo. Most notably, the spring months saw the planting of a 7-acre lawn facing the Silverado Trail in time for BottleRock spectators who packed the grounds on Memorial Day weekend.
Subsequently, the green space was put to more local, sporting use as the Napa Valley Cricket Club’s new home pitch and then, in much grimmer circumstances, as the staging point for numerous fire crews battling the North Bay wildfires in October.
However, one of the earliest steps to remake the Expo grounds hit determined resistance.
The fair’s board of directors voted in July not to extend beyond Dec. 31 the lease of the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society, whose membership of train enthusiasts has assembled and showcased a miniature world of rails, boxcars, switches, houses and forests inside a pair of Quonset huts at the fairground since 1971. The site is earmarked for a parking area that will serve visitors to the future pavilion shelter where future livestock auctions would be held.
Bitter, vocal disappointment among Napa model train hobbyists hardened into a determination to keep their place at the Expo, as members warned of the near-impossibility of finding suitable space elsewhere in Napa amid ever-rising rents. For some, the battle to stay at the Expo was a battle to hold onto what they called an older, local-friendly Napa from the days before hotels and winery tourism.
“The reality is that it’s an asset that provides people a lot of free community access,” club member Daniel Jonas, a lifelong Napa resident, told the fair board. “We’ve had people come by during the fair, happy there was at least one free exhibit here that entertained the kids – literally for hours.”
As the end of 2017 approaches – and the end of the train group’s lease with it – the dispute remains unsolved. After members of the rail society arrived for a fair board meeting Dec. 12, directors quickly cleared the room for a 70-minute huddle behind closed doors – to discuss the possibility of a lawsuit by the group.