GREENFIELD — Emotions ran high at Tuesday’s Hancock County Board of Commissioners meeting as the public and county officials debated whether the county should move forward with approving a land lease for the proposed $30 million new fairgrounds project.
For nearly 2.5 hours, supporters and opponents pleaded with the commissioners to see their points of view; those in favor asked for the long-discussed project to move forward, while those against it said more information is needed. At the end, neither side was completely satisfied.
The commissioners spent an hour discussing what steps need to be taken next to move the project forward but took no official action Tuesday on the pending land lease or strategic plan for the proposed project. They plan to discuss the issue again at their next meeting.
Sixteen people spoke in favor of the project, citing the need for upgraded facilities, and 11 spoke against it, arguing moving forward is premature without more details.
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Plans for the proposed new fairgrounds, also called the exposition complex or X-Plex, call for the facilities to host a variety of activities year round.
The fairgrounds would be located on more than 208 acres of county-owned farmland along U.S. 40 between county roads 400E and 500E. The proposed lease states a portion of the farm land would be left untouched to be developed later for economic development purposes.
The Hancock County Exposition Complex Corp. — the nonprofit board overseeing the project — would rent the property from the county; the county would serve as the landlord. The lease calls for the nonprofit board to pay $10 annually for rent and to hold liability insurance.
A strategic plan outlines the vision for the project, project phases, construction costs and possible funding sources.
The project would double the size of the county fairgrounds and add a multipurpose exposition center, two arenas and six rental barns. A large outdoor amphitheater, a grand gazebo and sizable retention pond also are planned. The corporation is looking at a public-private partnership to cover that cost. Some highlights of the new fairgrounds include a covered show arena and a multipurpose building with seating for 1,800 people, the plan states.
Hancock County resident John Priore, who regularly attends both the Hancock County Board of Commissioners and Hancock County Council meetings, presented an alternate plan to the strategic plan presented two weeks ago.
He suggested the commissioners establish a county farm development board — which would answer to the county commissioners — to oversee the county-owned farm land and build a new fairgrounds as funding becomes available.
Priore said the proposed project plan includes wish-list items that aren’t necessary. The focus needs to be on building a covered horse arena, which is sorely needed, he said.
“They’re thinking big,” he said. “We’re not in business to compete with the state fairgrounds and local businesses.”
He and other opponents argued the project was moving too fast, and there are too many questions that haven’t been answered, stating the strategic plan includes no specific details for funding the project.
Jan Brown of Greenfield told commissioners she wants to know the financial condition of the Hancock County 4-H Agricultural Association before the project moves forward.
“Sadly, what they call a strategic plan is not a business plan,” Brown said. “Where is a pledge of guarantee against the risk of failure?”
Other opponents told the commissioners it’s unethical to have county officials serving on the nonprofit board overseeing the project, saying it’s impossible for those officials to remain impartial.
Hancock County resident Joe Fortner said he supports the project, providing it is geared toward meeting the needs of 4-H’ers.
“I think we’ve lost our focus a bit. Nobody is talking about how it’s going to benefit the children,” he said. “They are going to be the future leaders.”
Kathie Hickerson, who serves on the publicity and fundraising committee for the X-Plex board, said a new fairground is the kind of project county officials and citizens can rally behind, working together to create something the whole community can enjoy.
“Channel your great amount of negative energy to creating a positive plan,” she told the opponents. “Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
The meeting brought much debate but little progress.
Commissioners Brad Armstrong and Marc Huber said they’re not comfortable moving forward with signing the lease until there’s better understanding about how the project will be funded. Commissioner Tom Stevens disagreed, saying it’s important the commissioners show they have faith in the endeavor and support it, and they can do that by signing the lease.
Armstrong said because a majority of the project would be funded by public money, it’s important the strategic plan focus on what can be done with public dollars that might be available.
The commissioners agreed they need to speak with their insurance carrier about liability insurance before they sign a lease. They also asked the X-Plex board and Lou Savka, a representative of the architectural firm overseeing the project, to crunch some numbers to show how much funding is needed to at the least move the fair to the new land.
With answers to those questions, the commissioners could move forward with signing the lease, Armstrong said.
“The reality is, we have to figure out how to pay for it,” Armstrong said. “Our job as elected officials is to make sure there’s a clear plan.”
“I fail to see how entering into a long-term lease agreement at this time is in the best interest for the county and county tax payers.”- John Priore
“This project to me is a Taj Mahal. It does not address any of the concerns or any of the needs that would warrant this.” – Ron Kerrigan
“I think it’s something we really need to do. Our present fairgrounds are too small.” — Jim Shoufler
“The 4-H motto is to make the best better. By moving the fairgrounds and building the complex, the community can make the best better.” – Michelle Hasty