COLUMBIA — A tax on retail sales at the Boone County Fairgrounds is a good start, but county commissioners should make a larger commitment to invest in the publicly owned property, the president of the fair board said.
The Boone County Commission earlier this month approved a new half-cent tax on all sales at the fairgrounds, which host not only the annual county fair, but also a variety of horse shows, gun shows and other events year-round. The county owns the property but leases it to the fair board, which is responsible for its management.
The tax, which became possible after the county established a regional recreation district at the fairgrounds, will take effect Oct. 1. Commissioners plan to invest proceeds from the tax into maintenance and other projects at the fairgrounds, but Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin said he has no idea how much revenue the tax might create.
Harold Cunningham, president of the fair board, praised commissioners for establishing the tax but said it won't be nearly enough to help the county realize the fairgrounds' full potential.
“Everybody acts like it’s just a lose-lose situation out there, and really it’s a win-win situation if they would just get off their hands and do something,” Cunningham said.
In September, the fair board submitted to Elkin a proposed five-year plan for further developing and marketing the fairgrounds. After hearing nothing, it submitted the same plan to all three commissioners on June 13.
The proposal carries an estimated cost of $1.5 million to $2 million. It recommends the county:
- Rename the fairgrounds the “Midwest Event and Agricultural Exposition Center.”
- Open adjacent county-owned land to commercial operations.
- Develop new facilities such as an open-air amphitheater, sports and recreational parks, campgrounds, equestrian features and batting cages.
- Make energy-efficiency upgrades to buildings, replace roofs and make other improvements.
- Create community improvement and transportation development districts that also could charge sales taxes to pay for fairgrounds projects.
- Modernize management by separating marketing and other executive functions from day-to-day operations.
Elkin said the plan is too expensive. “We don’t have discretionary funding right now to really make the types of investments that they’re proposing," he said.
He added that the taxing districts also would be not be viable because there isn't enough commercial activity at the fairgrounds.
“We want to see what the (recreation) district tax brings in,” Elkin said. He thinks that approach is the perfect fit for what the commission is trying to accomplish.
“It’s a destination, so if folks didn’t want to go to the fairgrounds, they wouldn’t be paying the tax for the fairgrounds,” Elkin said.
Elkin said the Missouri Department of Revenue will be in charge of ensuring vendors pay the tax. The commission will decide how to spend the money.
Fairgrounds General Manager George Harris, who works for the fair board, agreed the recreation tax is a start. “I just hope they spend the money wisely,” he said.
Neither the fair board nor Elkin believes the tax will have much effect on vendors. "It doesn’t take any money out of the vendors' pocket," Elkin said. "They just add it onto their cost.”
Vendors who talked to the Missourian at the RK Gun Show on Sunday said they didn't feel the tax would affect business much.
Kathy Thiessen, a Columbia vendor for Scentsy who sells candles at gun shows eight to 10 times a year, said the tax will be a minor annoyance. Spencer Taber of Second Amendment Firearms said it will be an extra chore, but he doesn’t expect it to affect sales.
“As long as the money is poured back into the facility, that’s great,” Taber said. “More power to them.”
He warned, though, that some vendors will be reluctant to disclose how much merchandise they're selling. Elkin said that vendors will be required to have business licenses and that it will be up to them to report their sales honestly.
Harris, however, said a lot of people who don't own businesses sell guns, knives or other merchandise from their own collections. “I would guess that once it gets enforced, somebody will give me some instructions, whether it be the county or whether it be the state,” Harris said.
The recreation tax should help the county cover the cost of fairgrounds maintenance that the fair board can't with revenue from events. As the property manager, Harris decides how much rent vendors pay by bidding for events against other locations.
Boone County Auditor June Pitchford said the county's lease agreement assumes the fair board will pay for repairs, but the County Commission occasionally steps in when the fair board lacks the money.
Both Harris and Cunningham said the fairgrounds are an invaluable asset. The events they host bring people from all over the state and nation. While they're here, those people shop, eat in restaurants and stay in hotels and motels. A national biker rally last summer, for example, pumped an estimated $15 million into the local economy, according to the five-year proposal the fair board presented to the county.
“Someone needs to do a study of the economic impact that this facility has for this community,” Harris said. “I just hope and pray someday the people realize what a great asset they have here.”