A group of regular users of the Lincoln County Fairgrounds got together Thursday evening with members of the Public Property Committee to begin discussions on ways to attract more events to the facility.
The meeting, which drew 15 members of the Lincoln County Rodeo, Fair Board, civic groups and concerned citizens, was facilitated by Art Lersch, of the UW-Extension.
Lersch said that the Public Property Committee asked him to facilitate the discussion in order to get more public input on how to better utilize the facility.
“It’s underutilized, I think we can all agree on that,” Lersch said.
He said the three main users of the fairgrounds are the rodeo, fair and the area horse clubs. Winter is a time when the grounds are utilized the least.
Ron Mittelsteadt of the Public Property Committee said that in years past, area civic groups staged more events in the area, but many of these events have faded away due to lack of volunteers to plan and run them. The Jenny Falls Festival was one big example he cited as something that would be perfect to stage at the fairgrounds.
“It just kind of fell by the wayside,” Mittelsteadt said.
The fairgrounds are part of a 40 acre parcel of land that also includes the Humane Society, National Guard Armory and Highway Department. While the county owns the land, the permanent facilities are owned and maintained by the 4H leaders, service groups or churches and the horse clubs. The county has an annual maintenance budget of between $15-20,000 a year for upkeep of the fairgrounds.
The mix of ownership, and the city ordinances that also govern the use of the grounds in addition to the county rules, were cited by members of the committee as a big stumbling block to bringing in more events. The fact that the facilities themselves are not “user friendly” was also given as a major obstacle.
“If the county wants to see more use of it, they are going to have to put some money into it,” said Rodeo President Bryan Bloch.
In addition to getting the grandstand cleaned up and ready to use, setting up the necessary fencing around the grounds and erecting tents for beer sales is labor intensive, he said. The rodeo and the fair have been cooperating on many aspects of preparing the grounds as a way to share labor costs.
Still, the rodeo puts $120,000 into its three-day event and the fair operates on an $180,000 budget. A member of the fair board said when all the expenses of the event were subtracted from what it took in last year, the fair “cleared” about $2,000.
Mittelsteadt said that a study on ways to better utilize the fairgrounds was done 11 years ago, but the County Board never took action on the recommendations that came out of it. The shortcomings of the present grandstand were the biggest strike against the facility then. While still structurally sound, the building needs major work or replacing to be more user friendly, the committee agreed. Many of the other buildings could also use cosmetic touches such as painting and other repairs to improve the appearance of the grounds.
The group then listed the major positives the fairgrounds offered, such as its convenient location to US Highway 51, the historical background and the camping facilities. These amenities can be used to market the fairgrounds to event planners.
The group then brainstormed such events that could be attracted to the fairgrounds. Some suggestions were a weekly flea market from spring to fall, renting camping during the Fall Ride, indoor horse shows if a larger arena could be built, outdoor movies, motocross races, music festivals and restarting the Jenny Falls Festival. Snowmobile, snowcross races and historical encampments, along with turning the track into a speed skating facility were listed as possible winter activities. Since NTC has the fire training facility in Merrill, a competition between area fire departments would be another good event for the grounds.
Lersch said with that information, the group had the beginnings of a marketing plan for the fairgrounds. He added that input would be needed from the City of Merrill and the Merrill Area Chamber of Commerce to help flesh out the plan. But the economic benefits to the Merrill Area would be worth the effort because big events bring an infusion of cash into the area economy.
Getting more groups and volunteers involved is critical, however.
“Folks don’t understand what you go through to put on the rodeo or the fair, as volunteers,” Lersch said. “They also don’t understand how much money that these events bring into area businesses.”
It was pointed out that some area businesses don’t sponsor or advertise in the existing events, which hampers the groups that plan them.
Bloch said that this can backfire for these businesses not advertising because many of the rodeo participants will go out of their way to patronize sponsors and advertisers at the expense of those who do not.
Another suggestion discussed would be to add additional buildings to the fairgrounds through a sponsorship or naming right basis. Many of the existing buildings are utilized for storage, which also hampers their use other times of the year.
Also discussed was the competition that has arisen lately between the city trying to stage events at the MARC. The Polka Festival moved to the MARC from the fairgrounds a couple years ago and other events have been added there in recent years.
The lack of a website to list the requirements for renting the fairgrounds and listing a schedule of events was also cited as a drawback that could be easily remedied.
Mittelsteadt and other members of the Public Property Committee liked what they heard at the meeting, but said the county is not in a financial position to help much on upgrading the fairgrounds at this time. He said the spirit of civic volunteers that was evident in the area years ago would have to be rekindled to spearhead upgrades to the fairgrounds. Lersch suggested that the major users of the facility pool their resources to slowly add such things as permanent fencing a little at a time each year.
Lersch said that the group had made a significant first step in identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the fairgrounds. He suggested that a second meeting be held, this time inviting representatives from the City and Chamber to attend, along with representatives from other civic groups that could benefit from increased use of the fairgrounds.
“Bring along a friend, bring along two friends,” Mittelsteadt said. “We have a start, let’s go forward with it.”
The next meeting was set for Thursday, Feb. 17 at 6:30 p.m. in the Social Service Building basement conference room.