County, city officials talk fairgrounds
At the conclusion of Monday night’s meeting between the Lincoln County Property Committee and city of Merrill officials, action at the Lincoln County Fairgrounds is one step closer to reality.
The city of Merrill was represented by attorney Tom Hayden, City Administrator Dave Johnson, Mayor Bill Bialecki and aldermen Tim Meehean and Pete Lokemoen. The group agreed to assist the county with building and maintenance costs of a grandstand structure as well as assisting with future operational costs of the fairgrounds. The measure would require approval by both the county board and city common council.
The two sides engaged in discussion for over an hour before coming to the agreement. Much of the discussion centered around county board member Jim Alber’s resentment over a previous grandstand measure being rejected by the board, and his view of the fairgrounds being a “dead horse.”
“I tried to get a grandstand built two years ago and the user groups annihilated the idea,” Alber declared. “They wanted this big six million dollar palace instead.”
Alber then suggested moving the 4-H activities elsewhere, citing the Lincoln County Service Center as an option.
“That place will not generate any cash flow, it’s a dead horse,” Alber added. “Unless you’re a lunatic, at some point you just move on.”
“What has happened, has happened,” replied alderman Meehean. “There is nothing we can do about that tonight. We are here tonight to discuss and see what we can come up with. We are willing to contribute to continued maintenance of the fairgrounds in the form of capital improvements.”
“We can help with the grandstands with TIF (Tax Increment Financing) funds,” Bialecki added, “but unless there is a commitment for a grandstand from the county, we are whistling in the dark here. Until that commitment is made, this isn’t going to go anywhere.”
Property committee member Hans Breitenmoser acknowledged Bialecki and Meehean’s offer and appeared optimistic.
“We feel the fairgrounds are worth keeping alive, but we need some help,” Breitenmoser explained. “We just don’t feel we have the financial resources to do with it, what needs to be done. Granted we are at the starting point here, but I hope the city can realize our investment here is the grounds and the insurance indemnity.”
“I think the grandstand could be the biggest accomplishment between the two entities yet this year,” Bialecki agreed. “Sewer and water is a possibility too. I agree, a grandstand would be a great starting point. My fear is if we don’t start constructing it this year and have it ready by 2016, we may lose our carnival and maybe even the rodeo. I’m not sure how much longer they can keep going with the way things are down there.”
Johnson and Hayden assured TIF funding would indeed be an option and has been used before for infrastructure improvements.
“We are offering to assist with putting up a grandstand with TIF funds,” Bialecki said. “Then you get more bang for your buck.”
“If the county isn’t willing to commit to a grandstand, the discussion is over,” Hayden added.
“Unless the county board is willing to take a leap, the county has no chance of keeping the fairgrounds around,” Breitenmoser reasoned. “We need to take a leap of faith.”
The two entities then began to focus on a grandstand agreement.
Public Property Committee Chair Jeff Hetfeld noted he would take the city’s offer to the full county board for debate in March or April.
Supervisior Kortney Pike asked for some type of official indication from the city of their intentions.
“I just want to see something showing us that your dog is in the fight,” Pike replied.
Bialecki answered that he could get something on the next Common Council agenda, seeking that body’s endorsement.
At the end of the meeting, the two sides agreed to meet again in three weeks, after the Public Property Committee and Board of Supervisors have met. The date has been tentatively set for Monday, March 23.