Boone County Commission proposes short-term plan for problematic fairgrounds

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 | 8:21 p.m. CDT; updated 1:19 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 28, 2011

COLUMBIA — If and when a new management firm takes over the Boone County Fairgrounds, it will face millions of dollars in deferred maintenance costs and cleanup, incomplete financial records and the possibility of losing money.

Boone County commissioners worry whether any companies will respond to a request for proposals for managing the fairgrounds that they plan to issue by Tuesday. They discussed that problem and other issues surrounding the fairgrounds with several other elected county officials on Wednesday.

As it stands, commissioners are proposing a one-year plan that would potentially solve those challenges through solid management and increased funding.

A new management firm would oversee day-to-day operations, distribute revenue from the fairground and maintain the facilities. The county must find new management by Oct.ober 1, when current manager George Harris will retire. 

Also on Oct. 1, the Boone County Fair Board's lease of the grounds will expire, and the commission will take over the property. If no management firm can be found by that date, the grounds will be left without direction.

“We're at a situation now where we have to make a decision,” Presiding Commissioner Ed Robb said. “We don't have that many options.” 

The commission has had two firms express interest in the grounds. Robb remains skeptical that they'll make an offer because of the deferred maintenance costs that have accumulated. And Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller noted the uncertainty about how much money the fairgrounds spends and takes in.  

“It's going to be difficult to work out an agreement with a management company,” Robb said. “I don't think anyone wants to take this on.” 

The Coliseum, which is the main building on the fairground, would require $500,000 to $1 million in maintenance to bring it up to operational standards, Robb said.

The land itself also needs extensive work, including mowing, mulching, landscaping, painting and cleaning.

Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren said she doubted that any firm would be willing to accept the potential millions of dollars in deferred maintenance costs.

“Someone's going to have to pick up the problems of the last 20 years,” she said.

The commission has little information on which events make more money and which make less, Robb said.

Robb attributed the lack of accurate financial information to the confusion that occurs when two or more events happen simultaneously. The numbers are difficult to divide and instead are combined in the books.

While the individual event information is flawed, the overall fiscal information for the grounds clearly show it has been operating at a loss for several years.

Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin blamed that in part on lax contract agreements with some organizations that use the facility. The Columbia Kennel Club, for instance, has a beneficial contract because of a $30,000 concrete floor it funded in 1992 on the grounds. In addition, 4-H and FFA get to use the grounds for free.

The commission recently passed a half-cent sales tax on all retail sales on the grounds, but it is difficult to estimate how much money that will bring in, Harris said at the time the measure was passed.

Miller said the plan for now is to hire a management company on a one-year contract with the option to renew. Within that year, the commission hopes to assess the operation of the facilities and gather concrete information on revenue and spending.

During this one-year period, the county would supplement the fairground's funds with reserve funds and possible contributions from other partners, Miller said.

Depending on the performance of the grounds under the proposed new management, the commission would then make a final decision on future plans for the grounds within 18 to 24 months, she said.

Robb listed several options for the future if the fairgrounds continue to operate at a loss after the allotted time. Those include selling the land, shuttering it and deferring a decision until a later time or finding another revenue source. Other sources include asking voters for new taxes to support the property or generating money by leasing 40 additional acres the county owns north of the fairgrounds.

While the commission has adopted a master plan for the grounds that includes  building recreational facilities on the land, Miller believes the commissioners need to analyze the current situation before considering further development.

Robb also suggested the commission do an economic impact study on the fairgrounds to determine the impact on the surrounding community.


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