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Strawberry Festival to Pass to Private Group : Oxnard: Action is part of city's move to cut costs and balance budget. Nonprofit entity will run the event starting next year.

May 18, 1994|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Oxnard Strawberry Festival will soon be run by a nonprofit corporation approved Tuesday by the Oxnard City Council as part of its continuing an effort to put city programs in private hands.

With the annual event just days away, council members voted to privatize the city-sponsored attraction that celebrates one of the area's most abundant crops.

The two-day event, now in its 11th year, will be held this weekend at Oxnard College.

"This is the direction the city has wanted to go in for some time," said Tsujio Kato, chairman of the festival's executive committee. "This is recognition that the city isn't in the festival business, it's in the business of providing public services."

In recent months, the city has looked for ways to scale back city government in an effort to cut costs and balance the budget. Late last year, the council agreed to put the city's economic development program in the hands of a private contractor.

Continuing that trend, the City Council agreed Tuesday to allow the California Strawberry Festival Committee to form a private, nonprofit corporation to orchestrate the event starting next year.

Council members also agreed to loan $600,000 to the new corporation to help it produce and operate next year's festival. The one-time loan will be repaid with interest over the next 10 years.

The idea is to reduce the city's liability by making the festival self-sufficient, an idea that Councilman Mike Plisky has wanted for a long time.

"It's been our feeling all along that one day we would privatize this event," Plisky said. "We have gotten nothing but lip service up to this point."

In past years, the city's investment in the event has been repaid by corporate sponsorships and revenues generated by the event.

The strawberry festival has generated more than $500,000 in each of the past five years, with much of that profit directed to a variety of local nonprofit groups.

On Tuesday, with the council set to permit the formation of the nonprofit corporation, business leaders stepped forward and asked city leaders to delay their decision.

Don Facciano, executive director of the Oxnard Chamber of Commerce, told the council that the chamber and other groups wanted to explore the possibility of running the festival.

"We just want to see what's involved in running the strawberry festival," said Facciano, adding that the chamber gets about 50 calls a day at this time of year from people interested in attending the event. "The end result is that we keep it a very good, successful event."

But Kato argued that the festival should remain in the hands of the group that has produced it since its inception.

"I think that the organization that puts on the festival has a (good) track record," Kato said. "The main thing we would like to see is the continued success of a festival that brings recognition to Oxnard and to Ventura County."

Also on Tuesday, farm worker advocates asked the council for a larger role in helping to plan the festival.

"What I would like to ask from this council and from the California Strawberry Festival Committee is the opportunity for greater involvement in the festival preparations from the group who really makes this festival possible, the farm worker community and specifically farm worker women," said Irma Avila, a representative of California Rural Legal Assistance.

"Two-thirds of the crews harvesting the strawberries are women," Avila added. "This is dangerous, back-breaking, low-paying work done with dignity by farm workers."

Similar concerns prompted farm workers and their advocates to picket the event two years ago.

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