High Bid for Orange County Fairgrounds is Low

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It was revealed today that Craig Realty Group of Newport Beach was the high bidder in the state's auction of the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa--with a bid that was much lower than the $96 million to $180 million the 150-acre property had been expected to fetch.

The owner of several outlet malls put in best offer of $56.5 million for the land and facilities.

"We see this as an interesting opportunity to enhance something that's here," Steven Craig, president and chief executive of Craig Realty, told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm happy to keep the fair here. We like it that way. But we'd like to find a way to make it financially viable. Maybe a private enterprise approach will work."

Maybe not. Because the bids were so much lower than expected, it was unclear at press time whether state officials will go through with the sale pushed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to raise capital, or if planned auctions of other state-owned facilities will now proceed.

According to the Craig Realty Group website, the firm has more than 500 employees and owns and operates more than 3.5 million square feet of existing real estate development in six states. Its outlet centers are in California, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Oregon and Missouri, and it is developing Plaza San Clemente. More are also coming to Utah, New Jersey and Illinois. Craig's Southern California properties include the Cabazon Outlets near Palm Springs and Citadel Outlets in Commerce. Craig also manages Lake Elsinore Outlets.

The Daily Pilot cited campaign finance records that show Craig contributed steadily to the campaigns of Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside) and in May 2009 contributed $1,000 to former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman's California governor exploratory committee. He also gave $5,000 to Jerry Brown's reelection campaign for state Attorney General.

Among the six other lower bidders for the fairgrounds were: Newport Beach-based Tel Phil Inc., which operates the weekend Orange County Marketplace at the fairgrounds and bid $1,000; Newport Beach consulting firm Forde & Mollrich, which bid $2 million for the fairgrounds and has the distinction of having provided public relations support to the failed effort to place an international airport at the former El Toro Marines Corps Air Station and now does the same for the Orange County Great Park Corp. that's developing the same land; and the city of Costa Mesa and County of Orange, which jointly bid $6.5 million.

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