Two years ago, there was great optimism in the community that the County of Napa and the City of Calistoga would find a way to cooperate and co-manage this 70-acre public property for public benefit. Such a partnership could have provided a welcome synergy of efforts, resulting in the “transformation” that the 2017 Grand Jury Report called for, “from a Fairgrounds in serious and deteriorating disrepair...into a vital addition to the upper Napa Valley community.”
Many of us had hoped that such a synergy of effort would result in a property that could, for example, answer the need of Calistoga to find a location for the disaster-hardened civic infrastructure it has needed for so long, while also providing the county the opportunity to fulfill its longstanding goal of improving access to county services for Upvalley residents.
How disappointing it is, then, that the original scenario of two local public agencies pooling their resources and efforts to do what is best for this property and the county’s residents has given way to a sort of "robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul" scenario, in which the two local public agencies, with a common property tax base, cannot agree on who-gets-what, and at what price. Something that was originally conceived as a co-investment for the common good has devolved to a sticky real estate transaction.
To move past this impasse, perhaps all interested parties should consider resolving any outstanding disagreements based on a guiding principle of “highest and best use.”
The criteria for determining "highest value" of this unique public asset should not be limited to dollars and cents alone. To do so would be shortsighted and a great disservice to the property's history, tradition, and civic potential.
It is thanks to the taxpayers of Napa County and the state of California that the Fairgrounds has been public property since 1938, but if not for the foresight and generosity of 16 Calistoga residents, the property might not have become available for public ownership in the first place.
In 1935, these Calistogans pitched in $200 each to buy 30 acres of land on the west edge of town. They named the new parcel “Silverado Park” and created the Calistoga Fair Association to take title to the property and manage it. Three years later, after conducting three increasingly successful annual events called the Silverado Trail Festival and Fair, the Association sold the property to the County of Napa -- not for profit, but so that the land would be eligible for state funding as an official site for a County Fair.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the Tubbs and Butler buildings, along with other improvements, were built using state funds. State funding ceased in 2011 with the economic downturn. But even for decades before that, the lion’s share of operating funds for the Fairgrounds was generated onsite, through year-round events and facility rentals, a racetrack, golf course, RV park, and of course, an annual Napa County Fair that has been held for the past 83 years (with the exception of three years during World War II). In all that time, the County of Napa has incurred minimal expense for ownership, maintenance or management of its Fairgrounds.
Rather than partnering, the county now wishes to sell the property, and the City of Calistoga is a willing buyer, although one with limited means. The two elected bodies are at an impasse, it seems, over the question, “What is the property worth?” It is a question that should be of interest to all Napa County residents, and one that should take into account a variety of measures of “value.” For example:
-- What is the value of maintaining the tradition and incomparable public setting for the recognition and celebration of our county’s rural agricultural heritage?
-- What is the value of protecting the largest section of Napa River public access in the upper two-thirds of the valley, a quarter-mile riparian corridor, rich in habitat, biodiversity, and archaeological history?
-- What is the value of finally having a site available to adequately address the need “for future service locations in the North County,” a stated goal of the County’s Facilities Space Needs Analysis?
-- What is the value of having a public “lifeboat” facility available for times of great need, one that for decades has proven capable of supporting thousands of disaster evacuees and their animals, first responders, utility repair crews, and others?
-- What is the value of retaining the largest piece of public open space on the Napa Valley floor?
I would submit to you that none of these questions can be answered with a number, but they can all be answered with the same word: Priceless.
Please resolve your differences and find a way to save this priceless public asset for its highest and best use: as public land for public benefit forever hereafter.
Napa County Fair Association