COLUMBIA — Days after the close of the Boone County Fair, Harold Cunningham is eager to know the status of the Boone County Fairgrounds' future.
Cunningham, president of the Boone County Fair Board, and the Boone County Commission agree the struggling fairgrounds needs a new management structure, but put off discussions until after the county fair.
"I've been hounding them and hounding them for an answer," Cunningham said. "They said after the fair is over — and the fair is over."
He'll have to wait a few more weeks, though. Boone County Commissioner Ed Robb said a meeting with the fair board will not happen this week or next. It is becoming a higher priority for the county, though.
"The time is ripe," Robb said. "The commission has never done due diligence on this issue, and now the time has come."
Currently, the fair board leases the grounds from the county on a monthly basis.
Robb said the county needs to have a new management plan in place by the end of the year. Much of the new plan will depend on the county's budget, he said, which will be in place by Dec. 15.
The fair board and commission differ on how that management should operate. Cunningham thinks the fair board should not operate for profit; rather, it should focus on providing a service to the public and breaking even.
Robb is quick to point out that the fair board has not been breaking even.
"The county has a lot of money invested in that property, I'd say close to $3 million, and it's been less than adequately managed," Robb said. "That's not fair to Boone County taxpayers."
Although fair attendance has been down in recent years — about 88,000 this year and last compared to about 120,000 in 2009 — the fair board typically makes money on the event. The problem is that the fair board loses several thousand dollars throughout the rest of the year and operates at a loss.
The fair board has managed the Boone County Fairgrounds year-round for the past 12 years in an arrangement that was meant to be temporary. Cunningham said the volunteer fair board should not be the entity that manages the fairgrounds year-round.
Robb said that after meeting with the fair board some time in the next few weeks, the county will meet with citizen groups and initiate talks with the city of Columbia and MU. He thinks some of those groups might have an interest in investing in the fairgrounds or being involved in its management.
"This is a very valuable property that has the potential to generate a lot of money if properly managed," Robb said.
The fairgrounds is in need of significant maintenance and improvements before that potential can be realized, though. Discussion of the issue at the county commission's July 12 meeting touched on the various fixes needed at the grounds, including roof replacement, repainting and repairs to barn doors and RV hookups.
"It's been used hard for nearly 20 years," fairgrounds General Manager George Harris said. "You can't do that without needing repair. You can't drive a car for 20 years without changing the oil."
The fair board has twice sent county commissioners plans for the fairgrounds to be remade into the Midwest Event Center, improvements estimated to cost between $1.5 million and $2.5 million. Neither the county nor the fair board has the money for those improvements, though.
The county approved a half-cent sales tax for the fairgrounds in June that takes effect in October. Though Harris said "every bit helps," Robb and Cunningham both have said that tax will not make up for the fairgrounds' deficits.
The commission has even raised the idea of temporarily closing the fairgrounds. Although that option is a last resort, it has not been ruled out, Robb said. The most likely — but not only — scenario in which the fairgrounds closes is if the fair board ends its agreement and leaves the grounds to the county, which has no plan in place for how to handle that.
"That would have a huge impact," Cunningham said of the potential fairgrounds closure. "I don't know exactly what the impact would be on hotels and such in that location, but it would be severe."
The fairgrounds has events booked up to three years in advance, and many are annual events, Cunningham said. He fears the fairgrounds could lose those events permanently if it closes, forcing them to find a new location.
"Once you break that contract, do you think they're going to come back after it opens? I don't," he said.
The fairgrounds has a significant economic benefit to Boone County. Harrison expects the National Fur Trappers convention this week to generate about $30,000. Last summer, the National Bikers Roundup brought an estimated $10 million to the county.
Cunningham said the fair board will not abandon management of the fairgrounds until a new plan is in place, though.
"We see the improvement it has on the community, we see beyond the numbers," Cunningham said. "We want to see it continue on a year to year basis, and that's why we haven't walked away, and that's why we won't walk away."