Faced with health and safety violations ranging from open sewer pipes to inadequate vermin-proofing, the Los Angeles County Fair Assn. is hurrying to renovate a popular food pavilion in time for the fair's Sept. 11 opening.
But to concessionaires, who have been evicted from the pavilion after refusing to pay $60,500 each for their share of the repair costs, the whole ordeal has been far from fair.
To protest their displacement from the horseshoe-shaped string of food stands known as the Circle, five of the concessionaires have filed a $2-million lawsuit against the fair association for breach of lease and trespassing.
'Trying to Make It'
"We're just regular middle-class Americans trying to make it," said Joan Garcia, co-owner of Bit of Italy since 1980 and a plaintiff in the suit. "We feel like we've lost everything."
Fair officials say that the approximately $500,000 refurbishment of the Circle was prompted by written notices from both the county Department of Health Services and the Pomona Fire Department warning that the concession stands were neither safe nor sanitary.
The five plaintiffs have been cited for a total of 109 health code violations over the last two years for such problems as poor ventilation, exposed plaster and rat droppings, according to county records.
"They were the kind (of concession stands) where you felt you had to go wash your hands afterwards," said Bruce Latta, assistant operations manager for the fair.
He added that the concessionaires rent on a year-to-year basis. "They were not the quality we're looking for."
However, concessionaires, some of whom had worked at the fair for more than 30 years, contend in their lawsuit that they had a long-term "implied lease" because of their "ongoing contractual relationships" with the fair association.
They also charge the fair's management with trespassing because locks used to store equipment at their stands were removed when construction crews began gutting the interior of the pavilion.
"If they want to remodel their building, I don't think there should be a cost to us," Garcia said. "They know none of us have that kind of money."
Offered New Leases
Last April, Latta said that he asked the owners of the eight concession stands in the Circle to pay $60,500 each for the cost of repairs and, in return, offered them new equipment and a 10-year lease at the food pavilion.
At the same time, health and fire inspectors prepared separate reports concluding that the food stands "do not conform to public health standards or codes and are in need of major renovation and repair."
When only one concessionaire accepted the offer, Latta sent a letter the next month to the seven others, saying that their refusal to correct the "antiquated, dilapidated and inadequate condition" of the Circle left the fair association "no other alternative" but to seek new operators to replace them.
"They didn't put any money back into these stands to maintain them," Latta said.
To the five concessionaires who sued the fair, $60,500 seemed like a hefty price to pay for a business that operates for only 18 days during the fair.
"I even told (Bruce Latta) that it was like extortion," said Irene Myren, who has operated Don's Western Cafe since 1976. "He told me that he wasn't putting a gun to my head. I said there's very little difference when you ask a person for that kind of money."
Gail Brown, who sells Mexican food at Karman's, agreed that the sum was prohibitive for a mom-and-pop operation.
"We could have got the money, but why invest (about) $60,000 in a building we don't even own?" Brown said. "There's no way we would be able to pay that back."
Promise of More Business
Concessionaires pay a rental charge that has ranged over the last few years from 20% to 24% of their gross sales.
Although sales at each of the the stands ranged from $22,000 to $35,000 last year, Latta said that additional seating created by the remodeling should double business at the Circle.
Mike Fuerst, the only concessionaire to pay for the renovation, said that the cost of remodeling is "a bargain" for what operators get in return.
"You can't take money out every year without putting something back in," said Fuerst, who operates a breakfast stand. "You have a moral obligation, if not a business ethic."
Latta said that he had no trouble finding new concessionaires willing to pay the $60,500 to fill the vacant slots.
"I had them literally lined up in my office," he said. "All the professionals could see that it was such a great opportunity."
For some of the longtime concessionaires, those changes symbolize a departure from the event's traditional roots.
"They want it like an amusement park--commercialized," Garcia said.
"We're the old-timers, the mom-and-pop operators," agreed Myren. "The building could have been fixed up without making it a glorified grab-stand."
But with pressure from health and safety officials to correct the Circle's numerous violations, Latta said that he had little sympathy for the displaced concessionaires.
"The whole concern here is concern for the fair and for the fair-going visitor," Latta said. "It's part of a movement to make the whole fair more businesslike and sophisticated."