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The future of the Del Mar fairgrounds? No guns, less racing, and more concerts.

Phil Diehl, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Horse Racing

DEL MAR, Calif. -- Agriculture and horses, once the economic backbone of San Diego County, still dominate activities at the 340-acre Del Mar Fairgrounds, but the question is, "How much longer?"

Time and tastes change. Attendance at the San Diego County Fair is leveling off. Mounting horse deaths have soured the appetite for thoroughbred racing. The long-popular gun shows will be barred from the fairgrounds after this year. And after five successful years, the crowd-pleasing KAABOO musical festival has departed for a downtown venue.

Sensing the headwinds, the state-appointed board that governs the property has launched a long-range strategic planning initiative to review what works, what doesn't and what might.

"We hope to adapt to changing times, protect (the fairgrounds) and grow it from where we are today," said Director Pierre Sleiman, chairman of the strategic planning committee for the 22nd District Agricultural Association.

All events at the fairgrounds are overseen by the 22nd DAA, often called the "fair board," which has nine directors appointed to four-year terms by the governor. The district and the county share the same boundaries.

The fair board wants to broaden the appeal of the fairgrounds. Located at the mouth of the San Dieguito River, between Interstate 5 and the Pacific Ocean, on the border of Del Mar and Solana Beach, the sprawling property attracts visitors from throughout Southern California.

 

But the venue's two primary money makers are lagging.

Attendance at the fair is down from its peak of more than 1.6 million visitors in 2016. Race track revenue has declined sharply, from $11.8 million in 2015 to $7.8 million in 2019.

"I am concerned," said fairgrounds CEO and General Manager Tim Fennell. "There are so many different forms of gaming now."

On-line wagering, tribal casinos, and the public's increased awareness of horse-racing injuries and animal welfare have taken a toll on attendance at the Del Mar meets. The district needs ways to replace the declining racetrack revenue.

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