By Jeremy Ratliff
Following a special meeting Friday morning, the Merrill Common Council voted 5-3 in favor of accepting the Lincoln County Board’s original offer of sale of the Lincoln County Fairgrounds.
The grounds has faced an uncertain future since April, when the county Public Property Committee drafted a resolution for the sale of the grounds to the city for $1. Along with the offer came several stipulations, including a restriction for the grounds to remain in public use and a deadline for the city to make a decision by July 1. If a decision was not made by that point, the resolution declared the grounds would be sold. Following approval from the county board last month, the fate of the 128-year-old grounds was placed in the hands of the city.
During Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Committee of the Whole, tax payers made their opinion of the pending decision quite clear, as nearly 90 community members packed into the council chambers and 16 speakers took the floor in favor of the purchase.
Zero stood opposed.
Many were cognizant of the rather precarious position the city had been placed in, considering the deteriorated state of the grounds and necessary repairs, costs of which have been estimated to be in the millions.
“I understand why you may not like this situation,” Fair Association President Dale Christiansen 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.”
During discussion, committee members raised concerns with the verbiage of the county’s proposal and in turn derived a counter-proposal consisting of:
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 signed contract to build a grandstand.
2) For 10 years, 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 at 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 would be lifted after 10 years (sunset clause)
The proposal was to be submitted for county board review, however on Wednesday rumors swelled of county board chairman Bob Lussow refusing to allow the city’s counter-proposal to be placed on the county board’s next agenda.
During a phone interview on Wednesday, Lussow indicated doubt of the proposal gaining board approval.
“Based on what I heard from the mayor about the counter-proposal, the county board just won’t accept it,” Lussow said. “All of the conditions in the counter proposal have been tried on the county board floor and failed 20-2 at our last meeting. The county board is just not interested in anything like this. The bottom line here is we offered the city a sweetheart of a deal by giving them valuable property for a buck along with $1.2 million. What more do they want?”
According to a statement from the city, no details for transfer of the ownership of the fairgrounds facility have been finalized. “City of Merrill and Lincoln County officials will discuss those details in the coming weeks,” the statement reads.