County Board looks to fairgrounds feasibility study
Addressing facilities needs at the fairgrounds is proving to be a slippery slope for the Lincoln County Board. A report to the board from the Public Property Committee on fairgrounds improvement projects raised more questions than it answered Tuesday morning.
The board had directed the committee in November to prepare a report on fairgrounds needs.
“The last 90 days have really opened my eyes to a lot,” said Maintenance Director Patrick Gierl, who presented to report. “I found it was very difficult to get for you folks what you asked for in 90 days.”
The driving force behind the fairgrounds study is the need for a new seating structure to replace the grandstand, which was demolished in 2012 after being damaged in a wind storm. The county has $1.2 million in insurance money to put toward that end, but supervisors are divided over what type of structure to build.
The board last year solicited bids for a grandstand structure, while the Public Property Committee is now proposing a berm system similar to Marathon County’s.
The need for new and remodeled bathrooms at the fairgrounds has also been determined. That cost is estimated at between $400,000 and $700,000.
Gierl met with the city of Merrill and found that the fairgrounds wouldn’t need a hard-surfaced parking lot as long as the new seating structure is not enclosed.
Many other potential costs to improve and operate the fairgrounds can’t be estimated until the county comes up with a plan for the property, Gierl said.
“The costs to operate the facility can’t be answered until we know what the scope of the project is,” Gierl said.
Susan Ryman, Lincoln County Economic Development Director, has applied for a USDA Rural Business Enterprise grant to pay for a strategic operating and facility plan for the fairgrounds. The plan would include economic impacts of the facility, the seating system, bathrooms, lighting, parking, operating costs and a host of other issues. Ryman said she should know in March whether she was successful in receiving the grant. Ryman pointed out that other grant opportunities are available as well, however it will take some time to get through the application and selection processes.
Supervisor Hans Breitenmoser said the county should go ahead and pursue a study to get a professional’s view of the fairground’s potential.
“This gives us real numbers from unbiased people,” he said.
Supervisor Frank Saal said the county could already have a new grandstand if it hadn’t been for previous discussions of building an enclosed expo center. He objected to the berm system concept as it appears to be a backdoor step toward an expo center.
“You don’t have to be a genius to see where this is headed,” Saal said. “This is phase one of the expo center. I want to see the fairgrounds up and running as soon as possible in the most cost conscious manner. We have a bid right now for a grandstand and we have insurance money to cover the grandstand cost.”
Zeitz said the feasibility study will provide information with which to make a decision on a seating structure.
“Whether or not we have a grandstand or a berm system, we need a feasibility study and we’ll finally have some figures to bring forth to this board,” Zeitz said.
Supervisor Jim Alber questioned whether the county should retain ownership of the fairgrounds at all. He asked that the value of selling the property be considered in any study, so the county can consider all its options.
“I think we have an obligation to the taxpayers to talk about other options,” Alber said. “One of those has to be do we want to move in this direction at all.”
Supervisor Paul Gilk noted that other counties no longer own their fairgrounds, but have turned them over to non-profit corporations. Gilk said the question of who will ultimately own and operate the fairgrounds in Lincoln County should be answered first.
“I’m not opposed to applying for a grant,” Gilk said. “But we haven’t resolved the issue of who is going to run the fairgrounds. Until we resolve that, all this other stuff is just details.”
Breitenmoser said the feasibility study will help answer that question as well.
“I think we should look at whether the county wants to continue to own this property,” he said. “The feasibility study may ultimately tell us it doesn’t make sense for the county to own this.”
The County Board will wait to see if the grant application is successful before taking any further action on the fairgrounds.