By Jeremy Ratliff
Merrill’s Committee of the Whole Tuesday night considered a recent proposal from the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors to sell the fairgrounds to the city for a dollar.
Along with the sale, the county placed stipulations in the offer including a restriction of the property remaining in public use, the county to reimburse the city for capital improvements not to exceed $1.2 million and for the city to make a decision by July 1 of this year or the county would place the property for sale on the open market.
Nearly 90 community members packed into the council chambers for the much anticipated meeting. Of those in attendance, 16 addressed the committee during a designated public comment session.
Each of those addressing the committee spoke in favor of the city moving forward with the purchase.
Zero stood opposed.
“The chamber board is urging the council to assume ownership of the fairgrounds from the county,” said Merrill Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Debbe Kinsey. “We believe working with Merrill plans and Merrill groups, will be far easier to work with than those of the county in years past.”
Kinsey further related her opinion of loss of the fairgrounds potentially impacting consumer spending and tourism. Kinsey cited various figures in support of her statement, including 2014 tourism income amounting to $81.9 million and resulting in an increase of 4.7% from 2013.
Kinsey also stated 2014 visitor spending amounted to $52.8 million, resulting in an increase of over 4%.
“That’s big news and big dollars!” she added.
Kinsey further indicated the three key events at the fairgrounds consisting of the rodeo, fair and car show, resulted in $153,712 in food spending for second and third quarters alone in 2014.
“The fairgrounds is under-utilized and has a long history in Merrill and the county. We have tools, energy and user groups to make this happen. Most of all we have the opportunity now. It’s time to bring closure and economic stability to the area by bringing closure to the fairgrounds. Its now or never,” Kinsey said, “The fairgrounds has been a strong part of our history. Please… ensure it will be a part of our future.”
Fair board president Dale Christiansen also took the floor in favor of city ownership of the fairgrounds.
“I understand why you may not like this situation,” he said, “This should be a county problem, but they plopped it in your lap. If you go ahead and vote yes on this, I guarantee you will have a great group of hard working people helping you with this.”
Christiansen informed the committee a new event has been booked for the grounds at the end of June in the form of a Renaissance Festival.
“This is a prime area for them as a majority of their activity comes from the Iron Mountain and Stevens Point areas,” he said. “We even waived some of our fees for using our buildings to make this happen.”
Justin Rice is a parent of children who recently started showing pigs at the fair. On Tuesday evening, Rice related to those present how his children learned and grew from their experiences in showing their animals. Rice focused on his son who gained a great deal of confidence after he and his stock were named “Grand Champion” in their first year of showing.
“Do this,” Rice stated, “but don’t do it for the people in this room or anyone else. But do it for the six-year-old little girl over here behind me who is excited to start showing pigs just like her brothers did..” he added.
Other speakers on Tuesday included Becky Kludy, president of the 4-H Leaders Association board of directors, and Park City Credit Union President Val Mindak.
“I understand the unfairness of this situation,” Kludy said, “I can’t imagine why the county board has done what it’s done. But I am asking you on behalf of all 4-H members, many who live in the city limits, to do this tonight.”
“Park City Credit Union serves 12,000 members throughout Lincoln County,” Mindak added. “This particular fairgrounds brings in many events which provide a strong livelihood for our members. Losing the fairgrounds and the activities it holds could reverse the excitement and positive momentum of our city. Saying no tonight would squelch the positivity our city has and the impact tourism has on our city. I urge members to say yes tonight to taking ownership of the fairgrounds.”
Representatives from the Lions and Optimist Club spoke as well Tuesday evening.
Both organizations expressed the impact the fair has on their annual budgets and activities, as well as the sharp decline in their generated funding since the loss of the grandstands in 2012.
Following nearly an hour of public comment, committee members opened discussion.
Alderman Tim Meehean opposed moving forward with the purchase, citing lack of information on cost and impact on the city budget.
“We had two meetings with the (county) Public Property Committee and our proposal was never even heard by the county board,” he stated. “We have no idea what this will cost us. I have no issue discussing this, but I am not going to vote on anything until I know all the costs. My only point is I don’t think we should be forced into a decision in three weeks.”
Alderman Dave Sukow also voiced opposition, stating, “I agree we are under the gun. If the city doesn’t do this, the city will look bad. The bottom line is we need to do something, I agree with what you folks have said tonight,” gesturing toward the packed audience, “but please understand this will be something we must pay for, like many other things.
“We have had pledges in the past and folks backed out,” Sukow continued. “We have a growing aging population which means folks living on fixed incomes who are barely holding on to their homes. I’m not sure if they can afford to pay any more!”
Aldermen Pete Lokemoen, Ryan Schwartzman and Rob Norton as well as Mayor Bill Bialecki spoke in favor of moving forward with the purchase, but in the form of a counter-resolution based on concerns with stipulations in the county’s proposal.
“I would like to see the county contribute $25,000 a year toward the upkeep for the next 10 years.” Norton suggested. “Everyone in the city is paying county taxes, there is no reason they can’t contribute to help us out.”
Bialecki recognized Meehean’s and Sukow’s concern of the relatively short time-line of the July 1 deadline.
“After a vote of 15-7, I can tell you that insurance check will be gone shortly after July 1 – not long after,” he said. Bialecki’s statement refers to the recent 15-7 vote from the county board to approve their resolution as submitted to the committee Tuesday.
“On July 1, the fairgrounds will go up for sale, I am certain of it,” agreed Schwartzman, who also serves on the county board. Schwartzman cited Normal Park as an example of his support for city ownership of the fairgrounds.
“That went from county ownership to city ownership and I think everyone has seen the results,” he said.
“I think the county has a big pot of money,” Lokemoen added, “In fact, I know they do. I highly doubt $25,000 will break the county.”
Steadfast in his concern on the matter, Meehean suggested a binding referendum.
“We have had a lot of discussion tonight and it seems as if we aren’t on the same page,” he stated. “By binding referendum we would hear what the people of the city have to say about it. We also wouldn’t have to worry about this impacting our budget. We don’t have a lot of room on our budget.”
Meehean’s proposal failed to gain support and after nearly an hour of discussion, the committee voted 6-2 in favor (Meehean and John Burgener dissenting) of a counter-proposal, consisting of the following stipulations:
1) A check to be received from the county in the full amount of the $1.2 million in insurance funds the county currently holds, when the city has a signed contract to build a grandstand.
2) Commencing Jan. 1, 2016, the county will contribute $25,000 annually for maintenance of the fairgrounds
3) The livestock barn at the grounds will be painted at county expense with city direction and city contracts. (Requested by Bialecki in respect to a “gentleman’s agreement” between he and county board chairman Bob Lussow)
4) Clause for “public use” restriction to be lifted after 10 years (sunset clause)
The matter will now proceed to the Common Council for review on June 9. If approved, the matter will be forwarded to the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors for consideration.
“I was very pleased with the positive 6-2 vote for city ownership of the fairgrounds from the Committee of the Whole,” city administrator Dave Johnson stated following Tuesday’s meeting. “The fact that more than 100 citizens attended this meeting to express their support for city ownership of the fairgrounds, along with 575 likes on ‘Facebook’ in just five days, and a petition with 470 signatures favoring city ownership, speaks volumes for the support within our community for the fairgrounds as an event venue. We can only hope that the county board does the right thing for the citizens of Lincoln County, and accepts the city’s counter-proposal to preserve the fairgrounds as an event venue.”
By Jeremy Ratliff