Fair’s move stalled by bill

HANCOCK COUNTY — County officials are re-evaluating how to pay for the proposed new fairgrounds after state lawmakers turned down a proposal for a tax hike to support the project.

The bill, which would have generated as much as $900,000 annually to pay for the new fairgrounds, was an estimated $30 million to $40 million proposal. Now, members of the Hancock County Exposition Complex Corp., an organization overseeing the project, say they’re unsure how to proceed.

County commissioner Tom Stevens, a member of the group, said he fears the project won’t have another shot at gaining the support needed to move forward until the next legislative session, which begins in January 2017.

Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, penned the bill that died at the Statehouse and said he intends to bring a revised version of the bill back next year.

He plans to narrow the focus of the proposal to make it clear that money collected from a 1 percentage point increase to the food and beverage tax — imposed on diners in Hancock County — would be spent only on the fairgrounds; this year’s bill was lumped together with proposals from several other communities that would have used the additional funding for a variety of projects.

That variation made the bill less attractive for lawmakers, Cherry said.

The fairgrounds 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.

Unless members of the group find another significant source of funding for the project, plans will likely be put on hold until next year, Stevens said.

For years, county officials have called for improvements to the existing fairgrounds, 620 Apple. St., which lacks many of the amenities, including adequate indoor performance space, that surrounding communities provide.

In past years, 4-H fair events have been repeatedly canceled because outdoor arenas were too wet or muddy for performers to compete.

Commissioner Brad Armstrong said he agrees that the county’s facilities need improvements, but the proposal for a $30 to $40 million project is overly ambitious, he said, adding that he thinks an adequate fairgrounds could be built for less.

When the facilities are upgraded, the fairgrounds will draw visitors to the county and would be an economic development-driver, Armstrong said.

Members of the group overseeing the project asked the commissioners last fall to sign a lease on the land for the proposed fairgrounds, but Armstrong and commissioner Marc Huber said they first wanted to see detailed cost estimates for the facilities and a reasonable fundraising strategy.

Until Armstrong hears a detailed proposal from supporters, he doesn’t foresee any immediate action on the project being taken by the commissioners, he said.

Darrin Couch, a member of the Hancock County Exposition Complex Corp., said the group will meet in coming months to consider what steps to take next.

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Daniel Morgan is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (317) 477-3228 or dmorgan@greenfieldreporter.com.