County parks tax aims to save the Central Missouri Events Center

Friday, July 25, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
The Boone County Fair is one of the main events held at the Central Missouri Events Center. The proposed one-eighth cent county parks sales tax, which will be on the Aug. 5 ballot, is designed to provide funding for the events center. Without a more stable source of funding, the future of events such the Boone County Fair is in jeopardy.

COLUMBIA – Proposition EPIC, or a proposed one-eighth-cent sales tax set for the Aug. 5 ballot, is designed to provide more options to Boone County and more funds to run the Central Missouri Events Center.

Voters will be asked whether the county may impose the sales tax "for the purposes of providing funding for parks, recreation, and economic development, including the Central Missouri Events Center at the Boone County Fairgrounds, to include the acquisition, improvement, construction, and equipping of facilities for said purposes and operating the same?"

Opponents say it unfairly places the burden of the events center on the public, the property has been poorly managed and the plans for the center are vague.

The six-year tax increase is expected to generate between $2 million and $3 million per year, according to previous Missourian reporting.

The specific financial and structural issues at the events center to be addressed have yet to be determined, but most of the tax revenue would be directly applied to the property in some way. 

The county would hire an outside project manager to help draft the master plan and consider public input on what should be included, according to previous Missourian reporting.

"The events center is the central focus," said Joe Miller, co-chair of the EPIC Visionary Community of Boone County. The committee represents farmers, business owners, developers and academics.

The sales tax revenue would be split between parks projects and the events center. At least $500,000 a year would go into a grant fund for parks and recreation projects throughout the county. The rest would be split between improving and maintaining the events center and developing areas on the 144-acre propery, such as the Atkins Tract, into a "premiere park," District II, Boone County Commissioner Janet Thompson said.

The county will also reserve the ability to allocate money from this tax to economic opportunities in Boone County as they arise, according to a handout released by the EPIC committee at a news conference on Monday. There are no specific projects or opportunities that the county or committee have in mind at this time. 

There has been support from members of smaller communities in Boone County because they believe the tax will provide opportunities to expand their parks systems. 

When the parks development near the events center is factored in, the amount of money going toward parks projects comes close to 50 percent. It was previously thought that only 18 percent of the money would go toward parks before the committee released more information. 

Miller said the 144-acre events center has been underused by the county and the city and hasn't seen the "investment that is needed."

By improving the events center, the county would bring in more events and higher-profile events, supporters say, which would result in a financial windfall for the city and the county.

According to Miller, the main concern is capital improvement of the property, which includes maintenance and development of buildings and amenities. Projects would be defined by an advisory board with community input.

Miller said the event center is only used about 40 out of 52 weekends a year and sees little use on weekdays. If approved, the tax would end in December 2020.

"Hopefully, in six years it would be self-sustaining, and we won't have to worry about renewal," Miller said.

The event center and surrounding lands have been a point of concern since they were purchased 15 years ago. The center has been run by TAG Events since 2011, with the county providing $275,000 or more per year to fund operations and utility costs. 

If the tax passes, the county will have to move quickly to achieve the goal of a self-sustaining events center by the 2020 sunset.

The proposition requires the hiring of a professional project manager, the creation and approval of a master plan, the creation of a grant committee, allocation of grant funding, gathering public input and execution of an undetermined number projects with unknown levels of involvement and complication.

The county would essentially need to do in six years what hasn't been done in 15. 

"The county commission has been taking $300,000 out of the general operating fund, and they're done," Miller said. He also said if the tax doesn't pass, the future of the Boone County Fair is uncertain.

Those opposed to the sales tax proposal believe the property should be better managed before taxpayers are obligated to fund it. There are also objections to using a sales tax as a vehicle to underwrite costs.

"I'm not for or against the fairgrounds, just who runs it," Steve Spellman, spokesman for an opposition group called Keep Boone County Free.

Spellman said the events center is an important part of the community and he wants to see it flourish, but he doesn't think the county should be in charge or that taxpayers should be "bailing out" the property.

"We've had this 15-year experiment that hasn't worked out. I think the county needs to explain why they're the best people to control and run this property," Spellman said.

Spellman said he would prefer the county explore other options before resorting to a sales tax, such as selling parcels of the property or putting the center under the control of interested groups.

"Interested parties like the fair board, 4-H Club, FFA and equine groups should have a shot at running the fairgrounds, to volunteer to pitch in and make it what they want," Spellman said. "It's done this way in other cities like Mexico (Audrain County Fairgrounds), and it really works for them." 

Tax fatigue is another point of concern in shouldering both the events center and parks. Some say they are already paying enough for parks and other services.

The current sales tax rate in Columbia is 7.975 percent, according to the Missouri Department of Revenue. An existing one-eighth cent city park sales tax will be up for renewal in 2015.

Both opposition and the city fear that if this tax is approved, then the city's temporary tax, which is up for renewal in the spring, might not get renewed and the city's parks would suffer.

Both sides agree that parks and the events center are worthwhile causes, but there doesn't seem to be a clear-cut solution to financially support them.

Spellman said some of the responsibility should fall on those who use the center and that the county should consider charging more for private use and services.

Miller took a different tack: "We have an opportunity to create something special and unique in a developing part of town."

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