Columbia and Boone County officials have called a news conference for 3 p.m. Thursday at city hall, and there’s a good chance it’s about a deal regarding the Central Missouri Events Center, formerly known as the Boone County Fairgrounds.
Southern District County Commissioner Fred Parry and City Community Relations Director Steven Sapp informed media about the news conference in a release Wednesday afternoon, saying officials would “announce an exciting and significant cooperative agreement between the two government entities.”
Boone County Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill told KFRU radio personalities Simon Rose and Renee Hulshof in a recent interview on “The Morning Meeting” that there would be a significant announcement regarding the fairgrounds property during the first week of December.
That declaration followed a series of closed meetings regarding a real estate matter between City Manager John Glascock and the three county commissioners over the past several weeks. The Columbia City Council also held a closed meeting regarding real estate at its Nov. 18 meeting at the Daniel Boone City Building.
Atwill has declined to talk with the Missourian about whether the city and county have struck a deal regarding the fairgrounds. But Mayor Brian Treece, when asked Tuesday night whether those closed meetings had anything to do with the fairgrounds, said “possibly.”
The Missouri Sunshine Law allows governmental bodies to close meetings regarding the lease, purchase or sale of real estate under certain circumstances.
The fact that Parry was co-author of Wednesday’s notice is significant. Parry is the lead commissioner on issues related to the fairgrounds.
Parry approached the City Council in February 2018 about an arrangement in which the county would cede half ownership of the 134-acre fairgrounds property to the city in exchange for its expertise in developing and managing parks. Mid-Missouri Sports Park, established by Columbia orthopedic surgeon Matt Thornburg, also would have been a major partner in the project.
Parry said at the time that the county and Thornburg envisioned an eight-court field house — at a cost of $9 million to $10 million — as part of the first phase of a redevelopment at the property. Thornburg had hoped to raise money for the sports park from public and private donors.
The City Council decided then that it would be best to keep its focus on construction of the new sports field house at A. Perry Philips Park, which opened last month.
As it stands, the Central Missouri Events Center is closed. The county commission made that decision after voters in August 2014 rejected a sales tax that would have funded its redevelopment and maintenance. The Boone County Fair left the property, and Sturgeon now hosts it each year.
The county in October 2018 issued a request for proposals from entities interested in using the fairgrounds. Veterans United, United Parcel Service and JC Events, owned by Jeff Cook of the Boone County fair board, responded.
In the end, the commission decided to continue leasing the property to Veterans United, which uses the fairgrounds’ coliseum, and to UPS, which stages vehicles in a parking lot on the property.
Parry said after that decision that the county needed a more viable business plan for the property. “Our hope is that we can buy a little more time and maybe revisit some of the ideas that have been proposed over the years.”
The fairgrounds property has been a challenge for the county since it bought it in 1999 for $2.4 million. Master plans for its future have been developed, shelved, amended and shelved again over the years.