By Jeremy Ratliff
After nearly 30 minutes of discussion Tuesday evening, the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors approved a recommendation by the county Public Property Committee to offer the Lincoln County Fairgrounds to the City of Merrill for one dollar.
The resolution initially passsed the committee by unanimous 5-0 vote last Tuesday, concluding three months of joint ownership negotiations between committee members and city officials.
As written, the resolution states:
WHEREAS, after decades of ongoing study and discussion about how to make the Fairgrounds viable, there continues to be no clear consensus among stakeholders about how to move forward with development and management of the fairgrounds; and
WHEREAS, the county has concludeed that the City of Merrill has a clear, vested interest in its maintenance and development; and
NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that in the interest of moving this issue forward for both the City of Merrill and the greater county interests, the county board of supervisors does hereby offer the property known as the fairgrounds to the City of Merrill (via Quit Claim Deed containing a deed restriction that the property remain in public use) for $1.00; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the county reimburse the city of capital improvements not to exceed $1,250,000.00; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that should the City of Merrill Common Council fail to officially accept this offer by July 1, 2015, that the forestry, Land & Parks Committee is authorized to dispose of the property by public sale. The committee chair and department administrator are authorized to sign such documents as may be necessary.”
The specified amount of $1.2 million represents insurance funds from when the last grandstand structure was detroyed by summer storms in 2012.
During discussion Tuesday, District 5 Supervisor Garth Swanson motioned to amend the resolution, requesting to remove the verbiage stating “via Quit Claim Deed containing a deed restriction that the property remain in public use” as well as the final statement of the resolution stating “Forestry, Land & Parks Committee is authorized to dispose of the property by public sale” if the city does not meet the July 1 deadline.
Many supervisors spoke in favor of the amendment, including District 11 Supervisor and Property Committee member Hans Breitenmoser, who has advocated for an ownership transfer throughout discussions.
“We have been dealing with this fairgrounds issue for quite some time now,” he stated. “For those of us who want to see the fairgrounds preserved, this resolution gets the job done! I have no problem with the amendments as made. In fact, I feel these amendments would only improve the resolution.
“The city has made it clear they are capable of taking over the fairgrounds,” Breitenmoser continued. “I have every confidence in their ability. If the city feels their hands are tied by the last paragraph, I don’t see a problem with that being removed. I would like to see the city get this done.”
“It would not be an advantage for the city to run the property into the ground,” added District 9 Supervisor Bill Zeitz. “I have more confidence at this point of the city taking over. I agree with Supervisor Breitenmoser, this would be very positive for the county and the fair. I recommend removing the restrictions as requested by Supervisor Swanson.”
District 18 Supervisor Curt Powell appeared to intitially agree with amending the resolution, stating, “I am uncomfortable with offering the property to the city, but then telling them they have to do what we want with the property. I don’t agree with that.”
District 12 and 13 Supervisors Paul Gilk and Jim Alber stood opposed to amending the resolution.
“I don’t feel bundling these changes into one vote is the right thing to do,” Gilk stated. “These amendments are two entirely different issues and should be voted on seperately. I would like to ask Supervisor Swanson to split his amendments into two votes.”
Swanson rejected Gilk’s proposal.
“I feel the two amendments are intertwined. If the city chooses not to accept this resolution, for us (county board) to sell it outright would be a huge undertaking! I do not agree to splitting the amendments. I believe in some serious thought and discussion before we were to do something like that, if the city chooses not to accept our proposal,” Swanson said.
Alber, who is also on the committee, based his opposition on what he feels is the need to keep the fairgrounds for public use, even under city ownership.
“I am opposed to amending any part of the resolution,” Alber said. “The goal of the resolution is to keep that piece of property in public use. I think that deserves to be said out loud then everyone is in agreement! This offer is going along with a lot of money, and this keeps a restriction on any form of ‘scheistering’ from happening. I dont see loosening this up as any form of improvement. If the city chooses not to take this that is their business, but they have certainly demonstrated their intent. If they choose not to take this option for sale, as stated in the last paragraph; that gives us an opportunity to work with other parties in the future.”
Swanson’s amendment was subsequently defeated, along with an amendment proposal from Zeitz.
Supervisor Powell voted against both amendments.
Zeitz called for the county to contribute an additional $250,000, in addition to the $1.2 million, for its lack of maintenance of the fairgrounds over the last several years.
City administrator Dave Johnson briefly took the floor on Tuesday, and answered a question from District 15 Supervisor Bob Lee, regarding the city’s intentions with the $1,2 million.
“Should the council approve, the intent is to build grandstand before anything else,” Johnson stated. “Anything left over from those funds would be used for capital improvements.”
Following the meeting, Johnson and mayor Bill Bialecki appeared disappointed but optimistic.
“I am disapointed in the way the resolution was written with the public use restriction,” Johnson stated. “But it is what it is. I will still recommend the city accept the proposal. We want to keep our events right where they are.”
“Not just the fair,” Bialecki added, “but all the events including the rodeo, 4-H and every other activity we have had down there over the years.”
The proposal will now go in front of the Merrill Committee of the Whole for consideration on Tuesday, June 2 at 6:30 p.m. in the council chambers at city hall.
If approved, the measure will proceed to the Common Council for final approval the following Tuesday, June 9.