Lake Perris Recreation Industry Says Newsom’s Dam Plan Will Sink It Fast

Businesses in the Inland Empire’s Lake Perris getaway destination say the state’s natural catastrophe plan is a disaster
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The Lake Perris Fairgrounds—one of America’s oldest public recreation destinations, just 70 miles from Los Angeles—is at the center of a bitter battle between the state and three entertainment businesses over the last phase of a retrofit to secure the neighboring Lake Perris Dam from the mother of all earthquakes.

The owners of Perris Auto Speedway, the Latin music venue Toro Wapo Arena Event Center, and the Family A Fair Inc. concessions company, who lease the heavily-trafficked fairgrounds real estate, fear what will happen to the car races, rodeos, and live music—and the people whose livelihoods depend on them—when construction resumes on yet another multi-year project at the nearby dam at Lake Perris. The lake is manmade, created in the 1970s at the southernmost end of the California State Water Project, a 700-mile system that delivers water to two-thirds of California’s population.

(Courtesy Toro Wapo)

And while the locals and the state agree that upgrading the dam at Perris Lake is critical, the construction delays and disruptions are turning the nearby coveted Perris Fairgrounds into a legal no man’s land.

The seismic reinforcement project, once projected to be completed in 2018, now seems like it will never end. The state recently decided to add one more phase to construct a 2-mile storm channel to ensure flood water wouldn’t affect residential communities in case of a killer quake.

Responding to the many delays and what the business community says is a lack of transparency around the surprise project, the three companies filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Water Resources, the agency overseeing the Perris Dam Project in February.

The trio is demanding substantive, regular updates on what to realistically expect in order to prepare, claiming that, so far, all they have gotten by way of warning was four bullet points in the Perris Dam Modernization Project. Tips for business owners included predictions of “dust” and “noise.” Considering that these businesses have just begun to rebound from long pandemic closures, they want to know in clear language whether they may be forced to close again and whether it would be a partial closure or a complete shutdown.

They have been pleading with Newsom for months to provide some kind of assurance that they won’t lose their livelihoods. They also want Newsom to call off his state agency dogs at the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) and the California Construction Authority (CCA), which monitors events-based companies.

Courtesy Toro Wapo

Almost immediately upon filing, the plaintiffs allege, they were met with a harassment campaign of exorbitant inspections and withheld permits rather than any answers to their questions about the project. Hearing only crickets so far from Governor Gavin Newsom’s office, their own phones haven’t stopped lighting up from State agencies like Cal Fire demanding eye-popping $240-an-hour inspections. It cost Toro Wapo owner Xavier Ortiz more than his monthly rent, and he says the violations are all trumped-up, hoop-jumping exercises for farcical venue changes that end up going nowhere.

In one instance, Cal Fire allegedly wanted Family-a fair concessions to install an automatic-shutting door in a small building in case of fire. When it was pointed out in disbelief that people would then be stuck inside with the flames, the department dropped it and just wrote up the for the same tenant issues already in compliance.  (Cal Fire did not reply to a request for comment from Los Angeles.)

For a recent 20-minute inspection on light fixtures at the Perris Auto Speedway, CCA charged owner Don Kazarian, a leaseholder since the mid-90s, $4600. Kazarian says he was also made to pay extra for the inspector’s travel time, despite the fact that a local inspector was available nearby. According to Kazarian, he then had to wait out, and pay for, the 30 minutes spent watching the sun go down with his long-traveled inspector before flicking the working lights on.

(Courtesy Perris Auto Speedway)

Perris Auto Speedway, made famous by Paul Newman and still used by celebs like Jay Leno and regularly featured in shows like Dinners With Racers—barely survived covid after being shut down for 14 months. “Tracks across the country were shut down for only two months,” Kazarian says. “Now that I’m finally getting back on my feet, the Governor is at it again.”

Toro Wapo owner Ortiz says no one told him about the multi-year construction project when he signed his lease back in 2018. “Newsom says he cares about Latinos and small businesses. It’s the opposite,” Ortiz tells LAMag. “He has abandoned the small business owners and crushed the American dream for a hard-working Hispanic family like ours.”

Longtime Toro Wapo fan Jose Bravo takes his family at least eight times a year for the music and bronco busting. He says if it goes away the Hispanic community, already more than half the population of the Inland Empire, will lose a vital part of its culture.

“Everyone comes with their kids,” says Bravo. “We are trying to teach our kids our traditions. That’s what we do at Toro Wapo.”

Family A Fair’s Cecilia Ramirez Smith understands what the fairgrounds mean to the community. She and her husband Dale have had the rights to the iconic Pink’s Hotdogs concession at Perris Lake since 2001 and have watched people line up just like at the Hollywood Pink’s ever since. They estimate providing “thousands of jobs” in the Inland Empire. “We have hired generations of families,” Ramirez Smith says. “The situation is heartbreaking. We love this community.”

The community questions if the state is using this purported last phase of the dam project as a pretext to stretch out the already-protracted retrofit. They suspect that the state wants to drive out the local businesses through a lengthy and costly war of attrition to sell off the century-old publicly held lands. These sentiments have fueled their public campaign to #savePerris.

Kazarian, who still has 10 years left on his lease, doesn’t understand why the state won’t work with local businesses like they’ve done with other projects. “We just want to coexist with the state and the construction,” he says. “All of our events are on the weekends. They can work all week. Just tell us what we can expect.”

When asked about the allegations and requests for more project details, the Department of Water Resources spokesman Ryan Endean told Los Angeles, “With litigation still pending, DWR cannot provide further comment. The project is expected to be completed by 2025.”

Such answers are not satisfactory to anyone who enjoys the grounds.

Stock car racer and Sprint Car fan Chris Leventis and his sons Chris, 23, and George, 21, regularly make the hour-long trek from Rancho Palos Verdes to the Perris Auto Speedway.

“I grew up here and these kind of mom-and-pop places for family fun are disappearing in California,” Leventis says. “If it closes, we’d have to drive four more hours to Arizona to get the same kind of public track. They wonder why more kids are racing around making so much noise in the city streets, it’s because they’ve got nowhere else to go!”

Everyone Los Angeles spoke with concedes that the project can’t happen overnight, but they question why the only construction updates available are those few meager bullet points languishing un-updated on the DWR’s site.

When pressed again for further details on the project and its potential ramifications, Endean would only allow that “the DWR is in the planning phase and the schedule has not been finalized…As additional information is available, DWR will update the website.”

The Lake Perris community simply cannot understand why Governor Newsom’s office hasn’t helped them get answers and put an end to the onerous inspections. Perris supporters say they have flooded the governor and local politicians with phone calls and emails for months to no avail. The ghosting became more galling, some remarked, as they witnessed Newsom publicly wade in to halt the construction of San Francisco’s 1.7 million toilet after it became an international sensation of government excess and ineptitude.

With repeated requests from Los Angeles to the governor’s office also going unanswered, it appears Newsom isn’t one to take his own advice. During his days as Lieutenant Governor,  he publicly called on his boss, Governor Jerry Brown, to intercede in the 2018 Oroville Dam fracas. Now, Newsom seems content to ignore similar cries coming from much farther south at Lake Perris.

“I guess the Inland Empire is too far away and our tacos aren’t fancy enough for the Governor,” says Ortiz. “After all, we aren’t the French Laundry.”

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