County officials reach stalemate on fairgrounds project

GREENFIELD — It could be March before county officials have a detailed plan to fund the proposed $30 million new fairgrounds project.

Conversations about the need for a larger fairgrounds have been ongoing for a year and a half. Tuesday, the county commissioners reached a stalemate over whether to sign a lease for land on U.S. 40 East, where the new fairgrounds is slated to be built.

A motion made by Commissioner Tom Stevens, who represents the commissioners on the nonprofit board overseeing the project, to approve a land lease for the project died after it was met by silence from the other commissioners, Brad Armstrong and Marc Huber, who have consistently called for a more detailed funding plan.

That might not come until spring, when project proponents hope the General Assembly will approve a tax hike to help fund the project.

It’s been about four months since the commissioners received a lease — the signing of which is essential for moving the project to build the new fairgrounds on county-owned land, proponents have said.

The commissioners asked in September for more information about how the $30 million to $40 million project would be funded. Tuesday, they didn’t get it.

Kent Fisk, a county council member who also sits on the Hancock County Exposition Complex Corp., the nonprofit board overseeing the project, said the project could utilize money generated by a proposed increase in the local food and beverage tax. That could raise $800,000 to $900,000 a year, but the state legislature first must approve legislation allowing the county to raise the tax.

Lawmakers don’t meet until January, and it could be spring before local officials hear whether the legislation, which will be authored by Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, has been approved.

After Fisk presented an updated lease, which clarified how much county-owned land would be used for the fairgrounds, Stevens called for the commissioners to approve it, but his motion wasn’t seconded by Armstrong or Huber.

Armstrong said he can’t approve the lease right now because much of the project still is in flux and many of his questions have yet to be answered.

“I’ve been very clear up front that I just want to know what we’re going to build, what it’s going to cost and how we’re going to pay for it,” he said. “We’ve been working on this for a year and a half, and we haven’t answered those fundamental questions yet.”

Fisk said the nonprofit is discussing funding sources. But until state lawmakers meet and decide whether the county can increase the tax diners pay at local restaurants, it can’t put a concrete funding strategy in place.

The project, which calls for show arena and animal barns to support the local 4-H program as well as an exposition center to host a variety of activities year round, would be located on more than 208 acres of county-owned farmland along U.S. 40 between county roads 400E and 500E.

The corporation plans to invest more than $30 million in the project, which would double the size of the county fairgrounds. A breakdown of the $30 million cost has not been provided.

It’s the second time Hancock County has looked at building new fairgrounds. A similar effort died about 15 years ago. Now, the price tag associated with the project has doubled, Stevens said.

“I believe we need to keep the momentum going on this,” Stevens said. “We don’t want to fail and have this project turn over to our kids and grandkids at a price tag that’s twice what it is today.”

Fisk and Stevens said the group will continue to work to answer the commissioners’ questions so the lease can be signed.

“We’re trying to get all of our ducks in a row while we’re in this waiting period,” he said.

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.