One of the first steps to making the Boone County Fairgrounds more financially viable would be to cut the fair board out of the operation, a consultant hired by Boone County told members of the county commission and fair board Tuesday night.
Currently, the Boone County Agricultural and Mechanical Society, known as the fair board, contracts with George Harris to manage the grounds, although Boone County owns it. Rod Markin, a consultant from Maple Grove, Minn., said he thinks that the board has no interest in operating the grounds on a year-round basis, and that the county should contract directly with a management company to improve operations and profitability.
Markin also recommended the county make improvements to existing facilities, add staff to market, and maintain the facilities as well as construct an exhibition center and more horse stalls.
The improvements would include covering an outdoor warm-up arena, which, Markin said, would help attract more horse shows.
“You’ve got a base of business that can be built on,” Markin said.
He estimated covering the arena could cost anywhere from $300,000 to $800,000.
Horse shows have meant better pay days for the fair board in the past, but competing venues have slowly drawn them away from Boone County. Another 80 horse stalls, to add to the existing 224 stalls, would also make the fairgrounds a more competitive venue, Markin said. The additional stalls would cost between $450,000 and $550,000, he said.
While the fair board schedules just fewer than 100 events annually, operating costs and lack of marketing keep profits low. The board has continually counted on the annual county fair to cut the losses to a minimum.
Looking for a way to make the fairgrounds financially viable, the commission hired Markin for $34,480 to make recommendations.
Some of what Markin said fell in line with the fairground’s master plan approved by Boone County and the Columbia City Council in 2003. A new covered arena, for instance, and a new multi-purpose room have long been identified as necessary improvements. More horse stalls, however, have not. Also, Markin has proposed placing a new exhibition center in the same place the master plan calls for baseball, soccer and rugby fields.
“We’re not recommending you do soccer fields on the southeast tract,” Markin said. “You may not have that piece available for soccer fields.”
While the master plan does call for a new multi-purpose building, Commissioner Karen Miller said she was concerned the exhibition center Markin was recommending would not be able to be used as recreational space as the multi-purpose building might.
The exhibition building Markin’s recommending would cost between $5 million and $7 million. The multi-purpose building the City of Columbia and Boone County put in the master plan would cost about $1.65 million.
But, Markin said that within three years of the construction of the new facilities, the estimated net cash flow would increase to $183,000.
In order to increase use of the new facilities, Markin said a marketing position should be created in order to attract new customers.
Miller said she agreed that a lack of marketing has been hurting business at the fairgrounds and that some improvements definitely need to be made.
“We’re not not willing to invest,” she said. But, Miller said she wanted to be sure they take the right steps.
Among the other recommendations, Markin also said the management at the fairgrounds should increase the prices it charges for stall space and arena space.
“Fairgrounds are notorious for not raising their prices,” Markin said.