Ferndale Grandstand Deemed Unsafe For August Meet

Racing on the California fairs circuit | SCF photo


The operators of the Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale, California, are scrambling for a solution after just finding out this week that an earthquake from six months ago so badly damaged the grandstand at the half-mile racetrack that county officials now won't permit the structure to be occupied for the six-day race meet Aug. 18-20 and 25-27.

Larry Swartzlander, who serves as both the executive director California Authority of Racing Fairs (CARF) and the director of racing for Ferndale, told the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) during Thursday's meeting that plans are already underway to bring the grandstand up to code while also securing the use of tents as a backup so the races won't have to be scrapped.

“The county has said that the grandstand was not safe to conduct racing at the August meet,” Swartzlander said. “What has occurred since then? You  know, the position of Humboldt and CARF is very clear: We will race.

“The [fair's] board, I've talked to the president and the vice-chair [Thursday] morning,” Swartzlander said. “We've already identified a contractor that will do the work, and they're having a meeting later [Thursday] with the county to put the details together. And it will be completed by Aug. 1.

“I've already got my staff working on a contingency if it would happen that we couldn't use the grandstand, [and] everything could be moved to another location [on the property], so I don't see that as a concern.”

Swartzlander did not go into greater detail about the damage and the costs to repair it, and the CHRB did not press him on those issues prior to moving ahead and unanimously approving the track's license to conduct the meet. The board did, however, instruct Swartzlander to keep the CHRB informed on the status of the repair work.

Published reports this week in two publications that cover Humboldt County filled in some of the blanks that didn't get addressed at the June 29 CHRB meeting.

The Lost Coast Outpost reported June 28 that “an engineering firm surveyed the damage at the fairgrounds following the Dec. 20 earthquake, and found that though the stands can hold the weight of the people expected to sit upon it, it would likely crumble in the event of an earthquake.”

Quoting from a recently released county report on the damage, the Lost Coast Outpost stated, “the structural engineering inspection determined that the building currently appears adequate to support vertical loads, but not lateral (seismic) loads of the type that need to be taken into account for occupant safety. Even though there is a limited window of time where the structure might be occupied, the risk of doing nothing and allowing occupation is not acceptable.”

That story further estimated a $1-million cost for a short-term fix just to enable the fair to conduct its races with people in stands shored up by bracing, while a more permanent repair would take longer to complete and would cost in the neighborhood of $2.3 million.

The North Coast Journal reported June 27 that, “The announcement of the price tag was met with palpable dismay by the board. The association currently has $628,317 in its accounts [and that the] state Office of Emergency Services would only reimburse for either the temporary fix or the permanent one, but not for both.”

It's also an open question right now as to whether the association (which runs the fair) or the county (which owns the property) is responsible for making the call on the extent of the repairs and initially paying for them before applying for whatever emergency reimbursements might be available.

The county fair itself would be allowed to operate without fixing the stands, so long as they were cordoned off. But without the revenue from racing, the fair association is facing a losing financial proposition.

“Our structural engineer says that the risk of an earthquake during that period of time is very low, but if there were to be one during the fair, it would be catastrophic,” Tom Mattson, the Humboldt County director of public works, was quoted in the North Coast Journal as saying at a public meeting.

When asked at that meeting which entity would make the call on the extent of the repair work, Mattson said, “That's a political decision, not my decision.”

Asked to provide his recommendation, Mattson said, “My recommendation would be to do the long-term fix.”

Ferndale's survival as California's northernmost county fair racing outpost has faced multiple stressors over the past year.

Back on Nov. 15, 2022, police arrested the fair association's bookkeeper on charges of embezzlement, and the fair association's general manager and three long-time directors  also stepped down around the same time. The North Coast Journal reported in this week's story that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is now handling the case.

In March, the CHRB ruled that the 2023 Ferndale meet would once again have to run its second of two weeks of racing against overlapping competition from the commercial licensee Golden Gate Fields. Ferndale representatives have repeatedly told the CHRB in recent years that a second week of un-overlapped racing is required for any racing there to be viable. They have also noted that the fair plays an important role in supporting lower-level racing in the state, and have pointed out that Ferndale routinely outdraws Golden Gate in attendance.

Beyond this week's unexpected news about the grandstand being declared unfit for occupancy, the North Coast Journal additionally reported that the stands “have also been vandalized recently, with people breaking monitors and leaving broken glass behind.”

Just prior to the CHRB vote to green-light the August meet, CHRB vice chair Oscar Gonzales told Swartzlander, “I do know you guys can improvise so that if the grandstands are not able to be used, [there are] other areas of the premises [where] patrons can be at in a safe manner. But we have to really rely on the county's expertise, and we always put safety first…

“I remain a supporter of Humboldt racing, so we'll be looking forward to getting the 'all clear' sign if that's the case. And if not, the plans that will be made to ensure that people are safe,” Gonzales said.

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