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Cal Expo calls NBA plan its best shot

Originally published: 3/4/09

Brian May steered a state car out of a pelting rain this week and into the state fairgrounds' cavernous main pavilion -- where former presidents have held forth, car and gun shows are held, and many a cow has won a blue ribbon.

"Can you smell it?" asked May, Cal Expo's deputy general manager.

The pavilion -- a metal barn built to show livestock -- carries a certain distinct odor from years of bovine waste that has worked its way into the concrete floor.

May's point: The fairgrounds are 42 years old and in sore need of a makeover. Buildings require seismic retrofits. Pipes need replacing. Asphalt walkways are crumbling.

But Cal Expo doesn't have the money. It's fallen $45 million behind on repairs. Revenues are shrinking. And the budget has been in the red four of the past five years.

"We're just band-aiding right now," May said.

That is why Cal Expo officials said yes two years ago when a National Basketball Association representative called with a proposition: Let's start talking about a partnership to build a basketball arena and upgrade the fairground.

Those talks took on new dimension and drama last week.

NBA representatives presented a conceptual plan that would wipe the 350-acre site clean and start over.

First up would be an arena fit for the Sacramento Kings on the site's northeast corner. With it, the NBA proposes a huge new Expo hall and fairgrounds, where the horse-racing track and stalls now stand.

The rest of the land would remain state-owned but be rebuilt over the next 25 years into an urban-style community of town houses, apartments, offices, restaurants and stores.

That means racing would go away, as would Raging Waters water park and existing exhibition buildings.

The Cal Expo board jumped on the idea last week, voting to start a search for a private developer to lead the project.

But the decision prompted concerns about the future of the State Fair, a summertime tradition for hundreds of thousands of Californians.

Sacramento resident Jim Piper, who attended the presentation, noted that the Cal Expo grounds are tucked into a corner of the site.

"It looks like a big real estate development and has nothing to do with Cal Expo," he said.

And Cal Expo board member Marko Mlikotin said he is concerned by the NBA consultant's report indicating Cal Expo may make less money in the first six years after the remodel than it does now.

"This is a problem," Mlikotin said. "The only reason we are considering a proposal is that we are not profitable now. We need a plan that allows Cal Expo to expand its revenue base and guarantee that for years to come. A bad plan could put us out of business."

Cal Expo is required by law to be financially self-sufficient. It cannot look to the state general fund for help.

Sacramento Assemblyman Dave Jones also challenged the Cal Expo plan, accusing NBA consultants of painting a rosy picture without fully studying the financial implications.

The Cal Expo board will hold a second meeting Tuesday to discuss the proposal.

But officials this week said they are moving cautiously and won't sign agreements before details are known.

In any scenario, they said, State Fair and Cal Expo events will not become second-rate citizens on the property. The fair's focus will remain on California's agricultural heritage.

"If this thing were to come together, one of the two things that would get funded (first) would be the fairgrounds," said board member Rex Hime, who has taken part in private discussions with the NBA.

"We'd have brand-new fairgrounds, something the people would be very proud of. We are not giving up anything. We'd actually have more usable space. Everything would be there, except newer."

A focal point of the new Expo and fairgrounds would be a massive exhibition hall, envisioned to be larger than the 13 buildings now spread around the fairgrounds.

It would have heating and air conditioning and movable spaces, allowing it to house State Fair exhibits in summer and large shows and meetings year-round.

Even the Expo's iconic monorail ride likely would stay, Cal Expo General Manager Norb Bartosik said. "The monorail won't go away on my watch." Officials said they will consider reassembling the monorail and using it in some manner as public transportation rather than simply an amusement ride.

NBA say their financing plan relies first on a private developer stepping forward and putting up money.

The NBA also has suggested that the Cal Expo grounds could be turned into a self-financing district in which revenue from future development on the site could be leveraged now to begin the project.

The Kings owners would be asked to kick in some money for the arena, NBA representative John Moag said. He declined to say how much.

Cal Expo officials say the plan needs a lot more fleshing out before they can decide its fate. For now, though, it's "Plan A" for what they say is a needed modern redo of their antiquated facility.

Before the NBA approached, Expo officials had put together a plan in 2004 to remodel the fairgrounds, including knocking down many existing buildings and adding bigger structures with heating and air conditioning that could make money year-round from meetings and other events.

The current fairgrounds aren't suited for that, May said. In winter, the pavilion can't get any warmer than 62 degrees. People who come to big shows sometimes are forced to walk in the rain from building to building.

"No one ever envisioned 40 years ago we'd be holding events year in and year out," May said.

An outside auditing firm recently agreed with Cal Expo's contention that it must find a way to boost revenues. Cal Expo "is at risk unless new sources of revenue are found to stay current with facility improvements and market-dictated programming changes," auditors with Macias Gini & O'Connell wrote.

The 2004 Cal Expo remodeling plan's cost was pegged at $150 million. Cal Expo officials said they already were talking about leasing some land to a private developer when the NBA called.

The league's plans, however, come with a bonus: an arena as an "anchor" tenant that could add excitement to winter months at Cal Expo.

"Nothing (else) on the horizon suggested we could be able to raise the money ourselves," May said.

Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.

NATHANIEL LEVINE / nlevine@sacbee.com

IMAGINING A NEW STATE FAIRGROUNDSState officials say the proposed redevelopment of Cal Expo will allow them to modernize the state fairgrounds. The basics will be the same, however, including the rodeo, livestock shows and midway rides.

Hotel and conference center: Shown as a 10-story building in architectural illustrations, it would feature 300 rooms and wrap around a 1,400-space parking structure

Venue: Two- or three-story building would be part of a "festive entertainment zone" of restaurants and shops

Retail: One-story buildings

Main gate buildings: Administrative offices; would also be new home of satellite wagering facility

Entertainment anchor: Two stories

Farm and forestry area: Would replicate existing 8 acres of exhibits about California agriculture the state’s native trees

Multipurpose fairgrounds: 27 acres would equal the size of the current midway

Overflow parking: 1,000 spaces (south of American River levee)

Retail: Two-level building to encircle 1,050-space parking structure

Grand entry

RV park: Existing location; 280 RV spaces

9/11 memorial: Moved from current site near main gate

Arena: 800,000 square feet planned. Arco Arena is 450,000 square feet.

Parking structure: 2,820 spaces

Retail area: Two levels

Exhibition building: With a main hall of about 300,000 square feet, it would be more than twice the size of the Sacramento Convention Center’s main hall. A garage below could hold 1,530 cars

Porch space: An awning running the length of the building could provide shade for eating or outdoor exhibits

Indoor rodeo arena: This portion of the exhibition hall would be designed to hold an 18-inch layer of dirt

Outdoor livestock area: During the fair, animals would also have pens inside the exhibition building

Surface parking: 6,550 spaces for use during State Fair

Sources: Gensler, Cal Expo, Bee research

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