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Concessionaires Win Their Case, but Miss Fair

June 08, 1989|SIOK-HIAN TAY KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

Triumphant after a three-year court battle against the Los Angeles County Fair Assn., concessionaires who were evicted from the fairgrounds received their checks last month with bittersweet feelings.

"We're glad it's over, but we miss the fair," said Velda Miller, who until 1986 leased one of the eight food stands within what was then called the Circle.

That year the fair association asked the stall owners for $60,500 each to upgrade what one fair official described as the "antiquated, dilapidated and inadequate condition" of the food pavilion.

'Implied Lease'

All but one of the concessionaires refused, and all but one were told that they would be replaced with new operators.

Owners of five displaced businesses challenged the fair in court, contending that although they rented on a year-to-year basis, they actually had a long-term "implied lease" because of their "ongoing contractual relationships" with the association.

A Superior Court jury agreed with that claim in February, concluding that the association had committed a breach of contract.

The concessionaires were awarded damages of $40,000 per stand, the fair market value of the businesses before the renovation, said Stephen Phillips, attorney for the 14 plaintiffs.

The association decided in April not to appeal because of the expense involved, said Ralph Hinds, president of the Fairplex. "There's been enough hard feelings," he said.

However, Hinds said association officials "didn't feel the fair should have been penalized at all."

Hinds said the association had to remodel the food pavilion because of health, fire and safety problems.

The plaintiffs had been cited for a total of 109 health code violations for such things as poor ventilation and rat feces in 1985 and 1986, according to county records.

Owners of free-standing stalls usually pay for their own renovations when necessary, Hinds said. But because the Circle was under one roof, the association decided to renovate the entire facility, asking each business owner to contribute, he said.

"We spent in excess of $1 million" on the project, he said, noting that other concessionaires at the fairgrounds have paid several hundred thousand dollars to upgrade their own structures. "Most realize it's better for business if they keep current," he said.

In return, the association gives those concessionaires multiyear leases on the stands, which are owned by the fair.

But Phillips likened that expectation to a landlord making his tenants pay for renovations to a building they do not own.

Hard Fight

Although Phillips' clients are happy with their victory, Miller said that keeping up the fight was hard.

Legal fees came to $21,000 per stand. Two plaintiffs died last year. Many of the rest still miss the 18 days every summer they would set up shop at the county fair.

"It was something we looked forward to every year," said Joan Garcia, who co-owned "Bit of Italy" for six years before being forced to leave.

"In June, your feet start turning toward the fairgrounds," said Miller, adding that she still felt bitter about the litigation. She had been working at the fair for 32 years, first as a waitress and finally as owner of Bonnie's BBQ. "We had people that would come back to our place every year," she said. "It was fun."

She laments the replacement of mom-and-pop stands with what she called "fast-food grab-joints." The Circle is now known as the Food Fair.

"They get business people in there now who just hire the help. The county fair doesn't need to be another sophisticated place," said Miller. "We don't need another Disneyland. They've even changed the name to Fairplex."

Howard Miller, the former owner of Pete's Hamburger House and another plaintiff, looks on the new stands with equal disdain.

"You can see those in the malls," said Miller, who is not related to Velda Miller. "We had waitresses and nice china plates to eat on." But Hinds maintains the association has worked hard to update facilities while retaining the county fair flavor.

"Our responsibility is also to the fair-goer," he said. "When Disneyland came into the world, it changed everybody who was in the amusement or entertainment industry. It's not acceptable to the fair-goer anymore if we operated the way we did years ago."

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