[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting.]
George Harris works weekends, lots of weekends.
As manager of the county-owned Boone County Fairground, Harris has booked events for all but three weekends this year. There are horse shows and gun shows and tractor pulls and conventions. There are auctions and rodeos and even wild burro sales. And, of course, there’s the annual Boone County Fair, the signature event on the property.
Harris is there nearly every day, maintaining the grounds, supervising staff, overseeing events and booking them far into the future. The 2008 schedule is filling quickly.
Despite the activity, the fairground makes no money. And seven years after Boone County commissioners elected to buy the property for $2.6 million — relieving the fair board of its debt and envisioning a recreational area with ballfields, trails and a dog park — little has happened to make those plans come to fruition.
Discussions about the future of the fairground have dragged on. A master plan approved in 2004 remains little more than a drawing. Efforts to at least create ballfields have stalled. The fair board, formally known as the Boone County Agricultural and Mechanical Society, has struggled to keep the operation afloat and implored county officials to get the city of Columbia involved. Harris, meanwhile, continues to work under a “temporary” agreement forged in 1999.
Uncertainty compounds the problems. A major annual horse show has ditched the fairground for a more stable location. Youth baseball organizations that once pledged thousands of dollars in assistance have grown frustrated and skeptical as the need for new fields grows. County commissioners’ efforts to get a handle on fairground finances have largely failed.
Opinions abound about the reasons behind the lack of progress. Some say county officials should have deliberated longer before buying. Others say it was never a good idea or that the county is simply failing to take the right steps.
Commissioners, meanwhile, urge patience, saying the wheels of government turn slowly.
The effort is picking up speed. A meeting this month created at least the impression of momentum when city officials told county and fair board representatives that they are willing to lend their expertise in an effort to push the fairground forward.
Running the fairground is an intricate financial affair. Despite consistently full year-round schedules, the fairground’s events-based business, which doesn’t include the annual fair, lost $78,888 in 2004 and $83,733 in 2005.
Leigh Nutter, former treasurer of the not-for-profit fair board, said that’s common. Other events-based businesses around the county rely on secondary revenue to counter losses on event bookings. The Midway Expo Center, for example, has an antique mall, a convenience store and a restaurant to help keep it in the black.
At the fairground, the saving grace is the 10-day fair, which in 2004 and 2005 cut the fairground’s losses to $20 and $192, respectively.
Relying on the fair every year, however, makes the fair board uncomfortable, Nutter said.
“Our financial stability is weather-dependent,” she said. “We’re just put in a very risky position.”
The management angst can be traced to the fairground’s relocation to Oakland Gravel Road. By the late 1980s, the fair had become cramped at the Clinkscales Road and Ash Street site. It is now the site of the Activity and Recreation Center.
The fair board said it felt a change of locale was necessary. In 1991 the newly-formed Boone County Fair Board Inc. bought the former Cotton Woods Memorial Airport, which at the time was primarily a rolling pasture of fescue shaded by scattered elm trees.
Vicki Russell, the fair board president, said the size of the property made it prime for hosting more than just an annual fair. The board took out loans to create a gravel parking lot and to build stalls, barns and the Coliseum, the site’s headquarters. And it hired Harris, who had been managing the Midway Expo Center, to oversee the operation.
Harris said business was good, or at least as good as it could be. The business of hosting events, he said, is rarely profitable on its own.
Harris charges the organizations that use the grounds different amounts depending on the season and how much of the facilities they use. His standard fee for use of the front room of the Coliseum, for example, is $2,500 a day, but he’s willing to charge less during slow times of the year.
Harris lands many events by bidding against other fairgrounds, some as far away as New York state.
“I have to price this facility with what the competition price is,” he said.
Once the bills for utilities, labor and management are factored in, however, those prices have produced no profit. It didn’t take long for the fair board to learn it wouldn’t be able to pay off its loans. By 1998, it was $2.5 million in debt. When Russell joined the board, the debt was rising by more than $400 a day.
The fair board sought a remedy in June 1998, when it approached the Boone County Commission about buying the property. A year later, and after much debate about whether the county had any use for the land or whether it had the capacity to manage a major park, the county bought the fairground and its buildings for about $2.6 million.
Discussion quickly turned to the question of who would manage the year-round events business. Don Stamper, presiding commissioner at the time, said the fair board would have to continue managing the business only through 1999.
“It appeared to us (that the fair board) wanted out of (managing the property) right away,” Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller said recently. “So we were trying to do that.”
Under a contract signed in 1999, the county leases the fairground month to month to the fair board for free. If and when a new operator is found, the board’s responsibilities will be limited to conducting the annual fair.
“That was supposed to be a short-term arrangement, but here we are six years later,” said Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin, who was not in office when the fairground was purchased.
Trouble started quickly. The commission had a difficult time drafting a request for proposals for potential managers and didn’t send them out until May 2000, five months beyond the original goal.
Then the commission hit another snag. Only one person — Harris — applied.
He proposed leasing the land from the county for $50,000 less per year than the commission had hoped.
Despite Harris’ eight years of experience managing the fairground, the commission turned him down.
“I think they were disappointed with my offer,” Harris said.
The county subsequently halted its search, but the fair board continued to employ Harris as the property’s manager under the same terms of his 1991 hiring. But the issue reared its head again when something as simple as a broken industrial-size air conditioner challenged the fair board just before the 2005 fair. Because it had no extra money and with the annual fair just around the corner, the board asked the county to pay for the $10,000 repair. Current Presiding Commissioner Keith Schnarre caused a stir when he suggested closing the fairground.“If you can’t cover your costs, at some point you’ve got to shut down,” Schnarre said at the time.
While the fairground didn’t close, Russell said the broken air conditioner was a wake-up call.
“We have eight of those, and they are all the same age,” she said. “If we continue to have major breakages, it could put us out of business.”
A CALL FOR COOPERATION
In December the fair board formally asked that county commissioners meet with Columbia officials to seek help in solving the management issue and to push planning for the fairgrounds ahead. The biggest issue with taking over management of the property has been determining how the county can avoid making it a financial burden.
Russell said the solution is for the county to work with Columbia. She proposes that the city’s Parks and Recreation Department manage the fairground. After all, she said, the city will soon surround the fairground.
In Russell’s vision, the county, which has no parks department, would continue to own the land, and the county, the city and the fair board would appoint representatives to a fairground advisory board.
“That would be a beautiful marriage,” she said.
City Manager Bill Watkins said he thinks Russell’s idea could work, especially because it would represent a cooperative community effort. But the city, he said, isn’t really interested in inheriting year-round management.
“We don’t have immediate expertise in running an events-based facility,” Watkins said. “I think we can learn to do it, but we’re not real anxious to take it over.”
The city probably would limit its involvement to lending unique expertise on parks development and management, Watkins said.
Miller was happy when Watkins said the same at the meeting with commissioners and fair board members. “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear,” she said.
While Miller said she is intrigued by the idea of city involvement in recreational planning, she wants to ensure the fairgrounds remain a facility where the entire county is welcome.
“I want to make sure that county users can come from any city without any conflict,” she said. “If there’s a (youth sports) league in Ashland that’s overcrowded, I want them to be able to come there, too.”
Miller also hopes to make the events business profitable. Her proposal, which was tentatively approved by all sides at the meeting, is to have the county hire a consultant to analyze market demand. A management decision would follow.
Lorah Steiner, executive director of Columbia’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that’s an important step.
“We have to look at fairgrounds across the country that are analogous to our facility,” she said.
What’s been a challenge is finding such facilities. Steiner said no national organization exists that focuses on year-round fairgrounds. Still, she said, a consultant who has experience with similar fairgrounds could guide plans in the right direction, whether that means trying to make a profit or using the land for a different purpose.
“It’s about finding out the best practices,” she said.
That solution could allay the fears of some county officials who want precise knowledge about the profits or losses produced by each fairground event. Right now, those balance sheets don’t exist.
“We don’t know what fees are charged, how the money is being handled out there,” County Treasurer Kay Murray said. “I think if we own the fairground, probably we ought to be somewhat enlightened on that.”
The fair board tracks annual revenue and spending, but does no accounting on individual events outside the fair. Russell said the board lacks the money to hire someone to do that.
Russell also doesn’t like the idea of just going after events that will bring in a lot of money.
“We’re not saying we ditch non-moneymakers for big moneymakers,” Russell said. “It’s hard. You don’t just go out and get huge events.”
CONSEQUENCES OF UNCERTAINTY
Prolonged indecision about the future of the fairground has come at a price. Groups that either hold events at the fairground or hope to have a stake in its development have grown weary of the stalemate.
The Missouri Paint Horse Club is among them. It recently decided to pull one of the fairground’s biggest events, its annual Labor Day horse show, in part because it sees no consensus emerging on what to do with the property.
“All that indecision about what to do in the future is a major concern to us,” club treasurer Greg Tambke said.
The show has been a staple at the fairground for 15 of the past 16 years. Club members, however, wanted to move it to a more stable location because it’s their biggest show of the year, drawing exhibitors from 13 states.
“We’ve been big supporters of the Boone County Fairground,” Tambke said. “Maybe us moving out will be a wake-up call.”
County officials, however, refuse to set a new deadline for finding new management. Miller said repeated failures to meet deadlines are unfair to others involved.
“You have to think about Mr. Harris, not knowing whether he’s going to be around six months from now or not being around six months from now,” Miller said. “We wanted to (replace management) by the first of the year, and then we wanted to do it by the end of the fair. Let’s not do this to this man.”
Along with the management issue, there’s also the continued lack of progress on development of the fairground and an adjacent 80-acre tract that Tom Atkins donated to the city and county.
A master plan approved by the County Commission and the Columbia City Council in 2003 calls for 12 baseball fields, three soccer fields, a 3.5-acre dog park and youth camping areas. It also included a 10-year timetable for completion. The first phase, which calls for nine ballfields to be constructed on the Atkins tract, was supposed to be finished this year.
So far, nothing has happened. Elkin said money is the main reason.
“Our coffers aren’t just overflowing with extra money to invest in parks and rec opportunities,” he said.
Elkin tried to boost funding early on by approaching youth sports organizations. Diamond Council of Columbia pledged $10,000 and the BC Baseball League pledged up to $25,000.
But Steve Reller, executive director of the BC league, said that the league has heard very little from the commission since its pledge. He was unaware the county had any plans to build this year.
Paul Blythe, president of Diamond Council, said he isn’t surprised that construction hasn’t begun. “We’re dealing with government,” he said.
Both Elkin and Miller said they think there will be two ballfields at the fairgrounds by the end of this year.
“We’re getting ready to see some things out there,” Elkin said.
Reller, however, said the need for ballfields is higher. “I could use six right now.”
Miller said she understands. She said: “The city admits there’s a need. The county admits there’s a need. The groups that try to manage that need are crying because there’s a need. But it takes all of us having a spearheaded effort ... to make things happen.”
Another incentive to build the fields quickly is a $76,005 national grant that requires initial work to be done this year. Elkin said the county had planned to have the National Guard do the work through a special program, but the guard has been unavailable because of the war in Iraq. He’s now working with Columbia Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hood and an engineer to determine how much earthwork must be done and how much it will cost. Once that information is in hand, the actual work shouldn’t take long, he said.
Plans for developing the fairground for recreation began before the county bought the land. What type of recreation, however, remained unclear for some time. Some wanted an ice arena; others wanted the focus to be on youth ballfields.
In early 2002, after a preliminary master plan showed 13 youth ballfields and a multipurpose sports facility, the county sent out requests for ice arena proposals. Several companies submitted them, but they were all rejected because they sought money from the county.
The potential for a recreational fairground didn’t die, though. Instead, Atkins’ donation of the 80 acres furthered it. The county had intended to buy that land in 1998, along the north side of the fairground, as part of its original purchase. But Atkins beat them to it.
However, in 2002 Atkins donated that property to the city and the county with two stipulations: The governments had to work together, and they had to develop the fairground for recreational purposes.
“What I’m hoping for is a youth sports facility,” Atkins said in 2002. “We need to look after the youth of our community first. Later, they’ll take care of us.”
While the city and county accepted the donation and agreed to cooperate, they’ve made little progress. Columbia voters did pass a parks sales tax in November that included $700,000 for youth ballfields, but the city has yet to decide whether it will spend that money at the fairground or at the planned Bristol Lake park.
Because many aspects of the fairground’s recreational development remain indefinite, some think the master plan might never be realized.
“With all the years of my experience, I wouldn’t hold my breath seeing it happen,” said Murray, the county treasurer. She said she wonders how the county will ever be able to find the estimated $4.5 million the master plan would cost to implement.
“The commissioners have said they’ll never use general revenue funds to keep up with the fairground,” she said. “Well, if you’re not going to do that, then you better think of another way to get money to come in, and that doesn’t seem to be on anybody’s agenda.”
Commissioners thus far have spent no general revenue on the fairground, relying instead on a $541,000 insurance settlement in the wake of a 2002 tornado that damaged fairgrounds buildings.
The county is lobbying the state House and Senate to enable it to create a regional recreation district that would let it tax commercial enterprises in and around the fairgrounds. The Senate version of the bill never got voted on, but the House bill is still alive. Even if that bill passes, the immediate impact would be minimal, Elkin said, because there’s nothing around the fairground to tax.
Still, commissioners maintain they’re making steady progress.
“Government doesn’t move fast,” Miller said. “You make a lot of mistakes if you move too fast in government. It’s very frustrating sometimes, but that’s just the way it is.
“If people want (fairground development) done quicker, they’re going to have to come together and take it to the voters.”
But former commissioner Stamper said the commission simply isn’t aggressive enough.
“I think there’s some opportunities being missed,” he said. “There are some folks in the community you could go to and ask for direct contributions and funding. There’s just endless possibilities. But they have to want to see them and look for them.”
Before the county bought the fairground, many residents and officials voiced concern about whether it would be a good move. Some remain unconvinced. Both Murray and County Auditor June Pitchford were openly hesitant at the time of the purchase, and they remain critical today.
“It was a significant capital acquisition that had not been identified in any long-range plan of the county,” Pitchford said. “It came to the commission rather out of the blue, and it was acted upon without the typical study and analysis we’re accustomed to.”
She said she wishes the commission had spent more time asking what public purpose taking over the fairground’s operations would serve.
“County government is responsible for state services that have been delegated to it by the state,” Pitchford said. “Operating an exhibit center is not one of those.”
But quality of life is a county responsibility, Commissioner Miller said. “And recreation is a big part of quality of life.”
There were other qualms. In 1999, Murray worried that a county-owned fairgrounds would just sit. In a recent interview, she was asked whether her prediction is coming true.
“Oh, sure it is,” she said. “I’m not against county government buying property, but the circumstances surrounding that purchase were definitely not palatable to the rest of the county officials because it was just bailing out a certain group of people.”
She was referring to an often-heard argument that Stamper’s relationship with former fair board President Billy Sapp was a primary motive for buying the land. Sapp had personally loaned about $1 million to the fair board when it first started having financial problems. In 1998, the board chose to consolidate all of its debt with First National Bank. Sapp guaranteed his part of the amount to the bank, putting himself at financial risk if the county didn’t buy.
Stamper, now a spokesman for Con-Agg, which Sapp owns, and for the Central Missouri Development Council, for which Sapp serves as board president, said a bailout was never his intent.
“(The purchase) was more controversial than it should have been,” Stamper said recently. “It was about kids. It was about future generations. It was about setting aside 200-plus acres to give to the use of children.”
Murray doesn’t buy that.
“They didn’t put any effort into it for the kids,” Murray said. “That’s what I was worried about, that they’d just let it sit.”
Schnarre criticized the purchase throughout the 2002 campaign against Stamper. Today, however, he wants to put that criticism behind him.
“I don’t think that’s something to discuss anymore,” he said. “As far as (the fairground) being a bad investment, no.”
Others agree it’s time to move on.
“If we continue to beat ourselves up about past issues that were good or maybe not good, depending on your perspective, we’re never going to get anywhere,” Watkins said. “They own the property now. We need to move forward and not look back.”
Plus, many continue to argue that the purchase was a very good deal.
“You don’t get a chance very often to buy that amount of land that close to one of the major cities in the county,” Stamper said. He compared the $20,000-per-acre purchase price to the $70,000 per acre that the city paid for the Stephens Lake property.
“It was extraordinary,” he said of the fairground deal.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Asked what will be at the fairground in 25 years, many said they see a vibrant area. Schnarre envisions an Atkins tract developed for recreation. The core of the fairground, he said, will have trails and a busy exhibition center. Miller pictures a place for both children and adults.
Even Russell, whose group has seen both the good times and the bad at the fairground, believes it will be thriving in 25 years.
“It will be a nice piece of property that has recreation going on 365 days a year,” she said. “The potential is fabulous.”
Talk has begun to even expand beyond merely developing. For example, the fact that Columbia will soon surround the fairground creates concerns for its future neighbors.
“There’s going to be noise,” Miller said. “There’s going to be smells. There’s going to be light at night.”
Another issue is the growth of surrounding roads.
Waco Road, directly north of the fairground, is a strong candidate for expansion, Watkins said.
In the meantime, Harris is content to remain in charge while everything around him plays out. He says he’s just happy steps are being taken to keep the fairground alive.
“I don’t know if very many other counties have fairgrounds that are comparable to this facility,” Harris said. “Many people come here and say, ‘Is this where the state fair is held?’ and things like that.
“It’s been good for the county.”