Santa Clara County lawmakers mull the future of county fairgrounds
Councilmember Maya Esparza and Supervisor Cindy Chavez spoke about new proposals for the county fairgrounds. Photo by Katie Lauer.

    The Board of Supervisors is one step closer to figuring out the future of the underutilized Santa Clara County fairgrounds.

    The supervisors Tuesday unanimously approved a recommendation for the county’s attorney to negotiate a 20-year plan with the Fairgrounds Management Corporation (FMC) to create a “grand space for public events and recreation.”

    Led by Supervisor Cindy Chavez, the proposal will explore and evaluate a long list of options for local partnerships, including USA Cricket, a county park and a San Jose Earthquakes Soccer Academy. While the search for a master developer for the site fizzled, Chavez said outreach over the last three years reached thousands of residents and has continued to keep their visions for the land alive.

    According to Chavez, 72 percent of residents surveyed said they value the fairgrounds as a public meeting and event space, with 80 percent wanting active recreation on the site.

    Of the 158 acres of land, the proposal could include 55 acres set aside park space, 4-H events and displaying local historic neon signs from Wings Chinese Restaurant, Mel Cotton’s, Greyhound Bus and more.

    Despite public pressure, transitional housing for homeless residents won’t be considered because the area is already densely housed, Chavez said. A petition in July from a Willow Glen resident called for building homeless housing on the land, though the proposal was met with a mixed response from county officials. The county already has built 500 units of affordable housing to 12 acres of that site, Chavez said, in addition to plans to build on other pieces of county land. 

    “The rest of the land is available for family, entertainment and community uses,” Chavez said. “What we need to make sure to do, is every place that we have large, open spaces, is protect them.”

    Iain Higgins, chief executive of USA Cricket, said the organization would develop a world class cricketing venue at the fairgrounds, which would host international competitions as well as domestic games through a new professional league slated for 2021.

    “With more than 1.5 billion fans around the world, cricket is the second biggest sport in the world,” Higgins said. “Nowhere is it more popular in the USA than in this county of Santa Clara, where there are more than 200,000 first- and second-generation immigrants who have a deep passion and affinity for watching and playing the sport.”

    Ian Anderson, San Jose Earthquakes vice president of strategy, hopes the plan to build soccer fields pans out.

    “There’s a constant shortage of those fields in the region, and we’re committed to addressing that,” Anderson said. “From our perspective, the fairgrounds really provides an ideal location. It’s accessible to the various folks who play and proximate to where the San Jose Earthquakes play.”

    Chavez emphasized the county would not be selling the land, and public money would not be used to work with individual organizations interested in investing in the project.

    A view of the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds as officials prepare for the county fair. Some residents say the land should be used for homeless housing. Photo by Kyle Martin.

    Any fairgrounds real estate lease longer than one year would need to be approved by the Board of Supervisors, she added. That provision was in response to the history of grievances against FMC. As the county considers extending the FMC contract after it expires  in December, Chavez said the recommendation includes the ability to sever the agreement at any time within the 20-year timeline.

    “We’re not leaving the fate of the fairgrounds in any one hand,” she said, “but ultimately in the hands of the Board of Supervisors.”

    Board President Joe Simitian was fond of using the land for cricket fields, saying lawmakers need to be mindful about how best to use the space as needs change over the years.

    “We have a different population than we did 20 to 30 years ago,” Simitian said. “We need to be open to the changing demands of the community.”

    San Jose Councilmember Maya Esparza, whose district encompasses the fairgrounds, agreed that community needs should be prioritized.

    “What I really like about this proposal is that it’s an investment in our families,” said Esparza, who partnered with Chavez on this proposal. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity to offer more to the families who are already working so hard to make ends meet, and also to add some infrastructure improvements in the area around the fairgrounds.”

    According to Esparza, data from 2010 shows the area around the fairgrounds – including an elementary school, mobile home park and apartments – is amongst the most densely populated in the city, with more than 20 percent overcrowding.

    “We’d very much like more recreational usage, and to have that space for gathering space, community space, and activities for the whole family,” Esparza added.

    Patty McNeil, who has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years, is hopeful the proposal will help build a sense of community.

    “There’s just so many wonderful things available with this proposal for the average family here in Santa Clara County. We need things that average families can afford to do, and this allows that,” McNeil said. “We see the fairgrounds sometimes as a junk drawer. This shouts hope and a vision.”

    Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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