Music venue proposed for Surfside

Music venue proposed for Surfside
After the Del Mar Fairgrounds received no bids to turn Surfside Race Place into a craft brewery, officials there are now considering a proposal to possibly transform the underused facility into a 2,000-seat music venue. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek

DEL MAR — Plans to turn Surfside Race Place into a microbrewery with a tasting room and restaurant have been replaced by a proposal to possibly transform the underused facility at the Del Mar Fairgrounds into a 2,000-seat music venue.

The idea was presented during the Aug. 11 meeting of the 22nd District Agricultural Association board of directors, which governs the state-owned property, by Stephen Shewmaker, who has been spearheading the effort to repurpose the building.

Surfside Race Place is an approximately 100,000-square-foot satellite wagering facility built in 1991 to accommodate 5,000 people. At one point it attracted about 2,700, but a decrease in offsite betting has resulted in an average daily attendance of about 350.

In mid-2013 fairgrounds officials began looking for ways to turn Surfside back into a revenue-producing venue.

Initial proposals included a microbrewery, luxury theaters and a family entertainment center with high-tech bowling, but the latter two were deemed inappropriate for the site.

Premier Food and Beverage, the fairgrounds’ contracted food and beverage provider, then partnered with MillerCoors to present plans for a microbrewery.

But some directors said Premier had an unfair advantage and using a large national company over a local brewery did not support the region’s growing craft beer industry.

A request for proposals for local companies was issued late last year but no responses were submitted by the Dec. 2 deadline.

“Microbrewing is such an embedded industry in San Diego, but mostly you’re dealing with the smaller breweries, and this was maybe a little bit of a (financial) stretch for them,” Shewmaker said. “At that point the larger breweries were investing their capital elsewhere.

“So we did some research and found what we desperately needed was a music venue that had the capacity to hold 2,000 people, particularly in the North County area,” he added. “And the sweet spot for something like that was our satellite wagering facility.”

Shewmaker said he received what he considers “a high, wrong estimate” of $10 million to transform Surfside into a concert arena that size.

“It just seemed high to me,” he said. “Of course, if budget is no issue you put everything you want in, and then when realism creeps in you get it down to where it’s affordable. But it’s good input to build a business case around.”

Other directors seemed to support the proposal.

“I really like this idea,” David Watson said, adding that it meets the requirement of agricultural districts to provide cultural and recreational venues and activities. “I whole-heartedly support it.”

“Clearly what was there is not going to come back,” Russ Penniman said. “While we wait we’re losing money.”

General Manager Tim Fennell said a music venue would complement other activities at the site, including the San Diego County Fair and horse racing.

“We’re also anticipating it would still more than likely have a craft brewery, tasting room and restaurant facility and still have satellite wagering,” he said, adding that it would create jobs and revenue for Del Mar.

“I think we want to sit down and put pencil to paper … and tweak the current architectural drawings and see if it pencils out,” Fennell said. “My initial feeling is it will.”

“I was told we could book perhaps 80 acts per year,” Shewmaker said.

He said a venue that size would attract acts similar to those at Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay.

The 2015 lineup there includes Steely Dan, Tony Bennett, Boz Scaggs, Melissa Etheridge, Chicago, Boson and ZZ Top.

By comparison, that outdoor concert arena can hold about 1,400 people. Balboa Theatre seats approximately 1,300, while Viejas Arena at San Diego State University can accommodate around 12,000.

Surfside would remain an indoor, enclosed facility. Shewmaker said the next step is to build a business case “to see if we can make it pay off in the short term.”

He said he could have additional information within 60 days.

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