County approves hotel tax increase

GREENFIELD — The tax imposed on Hancock County hotel guests will increase by 1 percentage point in September to help generate funding for a proposed fairgrounds and exposition center.

The Hancock County Council voted unanimously Wednesday to move forward with the tax increase, raising it from 4 percent to 5 percent, which adds about $70,000 to the Hancock County Tourism Commission’s current $300,000 in annual revenue.

County officials said the action will get the ball rolling on the creation of a new fairgrounds. For months, they have worked to get community stakeholders in line and now need funding to move the project forward. Local hotel owners opposed the increase, saying it makes their rates less competitive and arguing funding should come from elsewhere until the county has a definitive plan in place.

The project, tentatively called the XPLEX, calls for developing 208 acres of county-owned farmland along U.S. 40 between county roads 400E and 500E. It would double the size of the county fairgrounds and add an exposition center and agricultural business park.

More than $45,000 of tourism commission money already has been spent to hire a company to create renderings of what the property could become. These site plans feature covered arenas, rental barns, a large outdoor amphitheater and a grand gazebo. There would be space for business and restaurants that would keep the grounds operating year-round.

These renderings will be on display during the Hancock County 4-H Fair, and public meetings about the plan are scheduled for July, said Kent Fisk, a county council member and president of the nonprofit board overseeing the project.

County officials have yet to put a price on the plan, despite questions about whether such a large-scale project is within the county’s means.

A similar project was explored more than a decade ago and was estimated to cost $18 million. Fisk admitted that number has likely increased, but, in order to determine a budget, the fairgrounds’ board needs to hire planners and developers.

“Costs do go up,” Fisk said, “but we aren’t at the point where we can decide what the costs are going to be and what is going to be (built) first. … hundreds of thousands of dollars will have to be spent in infrastructure and engineering and architectural costs (to get to that point).”

In March, the county turned to the tourism commission for assistance funding the project. In response, the tourism commission passed a resolution stating any money generated by an increase in the innkeeper’s tax would be set aside for the new fairgrounds.

Owners of Hancock County hotels said they believe the innkeeper’s tax already generates enough funding, and local officials should rethink their current budget before looking to an increase.

John Dodrill, owner of the Super 8 in Greenfield, said he has nothing against the fairgrounds as a concept and would be delighted to see the plan become a reality.

“But I have time hard time believing this is the only way to pay for it,” Dodrill said. “Our take has always been that this should come from existing revenues.”

Mohan Reddy, owner of the Holiday Inn in Greenfield, said he wishes there was more communication between the tourism commission and the business owners. He said he believes current tourism funds are spent poorly.

Council president Bill Bolander said while introducing the ordinance for the increase that if the tourism commission did not follow through on its agreement, or if the fairgrounds project never came to fruition, the council would eliminate the hike.

Dodrill said he is skeptical if that promise will be upheld.

“Taxes aren’t ever reduced,” he said.

The Hancock County Commissioners own the farmland and would have to lease that land to the fairgrounds board in order for the project to be complete. That would happen only after public hearings about the concept were conducted and more plans were in place, Commissioner Tom Stevens said.

For now, they are approaching the situation with cautious excitement, Stevens said.

“The majority of the people I’ve talked to are excited about this, and I believe the other commissioners are getting similar feedback,” he said. “It’s one of the most popular projects I’ve ever worked on in my career.”

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.