Less than a month before a county commission is set to act on a developer's request to turn the longtime site of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire into a housing tract, a local group is gearing up for a last-gasp effort to buy the fair site and preserve it from development.
The group has hired a fund-raising firm and is planning a major appeal to fair-goers, foundations and corporations to dig deeply into their pockets to save the tree-shaded Agoura property west of Cornell Road.
What the preservationists are failing to put in their pitches, however, is that their fund-raising effort is almost certainly doomed, and it appears unlikely that a penny of the money raised will go to buy the site.
In a year of campaigning so far, the preservationists have managed to collect only $25,000 of the $14 million the landowner believes his 314-acre property is worth.
Unwilling to wait for the group to come up with the rest, landowner Art Whizin is pushing forward with plans to build 160 luxury homes this year. If the project is approved, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, which is held on 27 acres, will probably have its final run on the property this spring.
Begun 25 years ago as a two-day event that attracted only a few thousand people, the fair has become a popular springtime tradition in Southern California, last year drawing 200,000 people. For six weekends every year, the green meadow in Agoura has been transformed into the replica of an Elizabethan English village. Fair workers, dressed as nobles and wenches, banter with costumed crowds who quaff ale, watch plays and buy jewelry and crafts from artisans.
Debts of $4 Million
But, despite collecting more than $10 for every adult fair-goer and charging craftsmen and food concessionaires rent, pageant operators have lost money for the last five years. They now face debts of $4 million and have filed for bankruptcy.
Some creditors believe that the real aim of the preservationists is to quietly bail out the financially troubled operators, especially since the chances of buying the site are so remote.
Headed by Kevin Patterson, the son of fair founder and operator Phyllis A. Patterson, the preservationist group--known as the Historic Oaks Foundation--was formed a year ago specifically to raise money to save the fair site.
Although Patterson denies that the foundation will give the money it raises to his mother's organization, he acknowledges that it will indeed shift focus if the effort in Agoura fails. Patterson says the group will work to save other land, probably "a piece of property that has a significant stand of valley oaks and that could be utilized for year-round programs in the arts." He added that the foundation "possibly" would rent that land to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire.
Although Phyllis Patterson backs her son's effort, she said she already has begun looking for land in Ventura County for next year's fair.
She claims that her organization, the Novato-based Living History Centre, will overcome its money woes and continue operating fairs. The center, which stages the Agoura fair and one like it in Northern California, has suffered annual losses as high as $750,000.
Los Angeles County planning commissioners, meanwhile, have said they won't be influenced by the fate of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in deciding on the housing plan. Whizin has already received approval for a tentative tract map for the site and, earlier this month, the county's planning staff recommended final approval.
Final approval from the commissioners could come as early as March 9.
As part of the last-ditch effort to raise money, the Historic Oaks Foundation recently hired the Beverly Hills fund-raising firm of Blum & O'Hara. The firm plans a gala fund-raising dinner and a massive mailing soon to solicit corporate and private grants and donations, said owner Laurie Blum.
Kevin Patterson said he also hopes for "substantial donations from fair-goers to help secure the property."
In place of houses, the Heritage Oaks Foundation would build a Tudor-style community hall and make the site available throughout the year for artistic and community activities, outdoor theater and musical performances, and art shows, Patterson said. The foundation would lease part of the property to the fair each spring, he added.
Beyond its use as the fairgrounds, the oak-shaded site has been praised by environmentalists for its beauty. Both the National Park Service and Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy want to buy it for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and have pledged to work with Patterson's group.
But neither agency has the money now and, even if Congress appropriates funds, it is unlikely that they would be available until next year, conservancy and park service officials said.
A $776-million state parks bond initiative also could provide money to help purchase the property, but the measure doesn't even go before voters until June.