CALISTOGA, Calif. — City officials in Calistoga are preparing an offer to buy the local fairgrounds from Napa County, reviving the most slender of hopes of re-opening Calistoga Speedway, which has been shuttered for three seasons during a standoff between the two agencies over ownership of the property.
During a confidential executive session on Wednesday, the City Council unanimously agreed to develop a proposal to purchase the entire fairgrounds, which includes a golf course and the half-mile oval in addition to several buildings that in the past served a variety of community needs, although details of the offer or when it will be presented have not been made public.
Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning said the decision to move on purchasing the property comes after months of conversations with Napa County that began in November, but he was quick to note that there is no assurance that a deal will be made and that it would take a year or more to make the property useable if a deal was struck.
“The council knows we have an anxious community,” said Mayor Chris Canning, referring to an increasing push from Calistoga residents to purchase the entire property, which has been fenced off from any public use for the last three years.
The closing of the historic and renowned Calistoga Speedway began with a bankruptcy of the non-profit association that operated the Napa County Fairgrounds in 2018. Subsequent efforts by the city of Calistoga to purchase the property were sabotaged first by massive fires in the Napa Valley that depleted the city’s financial reserves and later by the COVID pandemic.
“Just as we were poised to make an offer in 2020, the bond market collapsed because of the pandemic,” said Canning.
Despite periodic negotiations over the last three years, the city and county have different ideas about the value of the fairgrounds, which had also served as the city’s impromptu civic center where local organizations held meetings, artists displayed their work and residents celebrated weddings and graduations.
“The county has the property appraised at a value that includes uses that it’s currently not zoned for,” noted Canning.
In California, the city controls the zoning on the property, not the county.
Canning noted that, even if a sale is made, it would require at least a year and a significant financial investment to make the property usable.
“We don’t want to buy the house and then not be able to live in it,” said Canning to emphasize that rehab costs are a significant factor in any financial offer Calistoga makes.
The half-mile Calistoga Speedway is one of the country’s oldest racetracks, dating back to 1938. It’s signature event, the Louie Vermeil Classic, is named for the late founder of the Northern Auto Racing Club and who was a longtime Calistoga resident.
The last Louie Vermeil Classic to be held at Calistoga was in 2018. After a two-year absence, it was resurrected at Silver Dollar Speedway in 2021. At the time, Tommy Hunt of HMC Promotions said it was his goal to return the race to Calistoga whenever it’s possible, saying “it’s the rightful home” of the race.