In a celebratory rally marked by a champagne toast, critics of the proposed 120,000-square-foot events center at the Ventura County Fairgrounds said Tuesday that they have collected enough signatures to place the issue on the November ballot.
Nearly 6,500 Ventura residents have signed petitions for the measure, which aims to kill the project by blocking an $11.4-million contribution from the city, said Shirley Henniger, a leader of the "Save the Fair" committee.
The critics, who claim that the structure would be an oversized "white elephant," needed to collect 4,612 valid signatures, or 10% of the city's registered voters, to qualify the initiative. They said they would submit the petitions to City Clerk Barbara Kam on June 28 for verification.
"The people of Ventura don't want this thing," Henniger said. "The only people benefiting will be hotel owners and liquor stores. It's not for the majority of people in this city."
But fair and city officials, who see the building as the keystone to the $30-million renovation plan for the fairgrounds approved last summer, say all will benefit from such a facility.
"It's a resource for all people in the county," said Jeremy Ferris, fair manager. "It would be a Mecca for all of us to use."
The building, he said, could serve as a 6,500-seat auditorium, handle a 2,000-delegate banquet or display exhibitions four times larger than any existing facility in the county can handle. Activities are expected to produce more than $500,000 for the fair annually and generate thousands of additional dollars for local merchants.
Those estimates, however, are based on an economic study that predicts a yearly total of 140 events visited by more than 500,000 people.
"This level of usage assumes an aggressive program with the fairgrounds, city and local hotels to generate out-of-area trade show and convention activity," according to the study prepared by Economics Research Associates.
Critics, who first organized last fall to protest what they consider the commercialization of the fair's traditional small-town flavor, say they want to prevent such an influx.
"It just brings in an element that most of the time we would prefer not to have here," Henniger said, explaining that the scope of the proposed facility would overshadow Ventura's traditional ambiance.
But city officials, who have offered a long-term, $11.4-million no-interest loan to help finance the project, say such events would maximize use of the 79-year-old fairgrounds and help to revitalize the surrounding downtown area.
Similarly, tourism boosters, eager to attract larger convention groups and trade shows, say the facility is a key to Ventura's future economic growth.
"We're going to go out there and see if we can't persuade people to vote 'no' based on the long-term benefit to the city as a whole," said Russ Smith, executive director of the Ventura Visitors and Convention Bureau. "There isn't anybody in this town that isn't affected by the visitor business to some extent."