Candidates offer differing views on fairgrounds proposal

HANCOCK COUNTY — Whether it’s a complete overhaul to the proposal for a new county fairgrounds or a few minor tweaks, the five candidates running for Hancock County commissioners agree: Something about the plan needs to change.

It’s a hot topic in the race for two open positions on the three-member board that acts as the county’s executive branch of government.

The May 3 primary pits incumbent commissioner Brad Armstrong, who’s completing his second four-year term, against Matt Holland, a newcomer to public office in the District 3 race. The candidates, both Republicans, are running to represent residents in Blue River, Brandywine and Sugar Creek townships.

Republican candidates John Jessup, Randy Sorrell and Randy Harrison are squaring off for the District 2 seat, which makes up Brown, Green and Vernon townships. Incumbent Tom Stevens opted not to seek a third term.

No Democrats have filed to run in either district.

The commissioners’ role in the proposed new fairgrounds project has been hotly contested in recent months, and those debates have carried over into the race.

The plan for the new fairgrounds, estimated to cost between $30 million to $40 million, calls for new facilities to be built on more than 208 acres of county-owned farmland along U.S. 40 between county roads 400E and 500E.

All commissioner candidates agree the county’s current facilities need upgraded, several differ on what specific improvements need to be made.

Holland, a lieutenant with the Greenfield Police Department, said if elected, he intends to sign a long-term lease on the county-owned land where members of the nonprofit overseeing the project have proposed building the new fairgrounds.

The current commissioners turned down the nonprofit group’s proposal to lease the land during a December meeting, saying they wanted a more detailed plan for funding the project before signing away the county’s land.

Without that show of support from county government, it’s difficult to round up financial support from private donors, Holland said.

Armstrong argues it’s still too early to sign a lease for the land. He wants to see a detailed plan outlining how much money would need to be spent on each aspect of the new fairgrounds, as well as a plan for how to pay for it.

The organization’s initial plan to fund the project — a proposed 1-percentage point increase to the county’s food and beverage tax, which is collected from diners at local restaurants — was turned down by state lawmakers this year.

Members have yet to pitch an alternative funding plan.

Holland said he’s reserving judgment on whether the proposal is too costly for the county.

Armstrong opposes spending that much, arguing it would be beyond the county’s means; an adequate facility could be built for roughly half of the proposed estimate, he said.

Eventually, Holland said he would like to see the formation of a county parks board that would replace the exposition complex board as the body overseeing development of the fairgrounds – a concept Jessup also supports.

Jessup said creating such a body would allow the public to attend meetings about the development of the site — a courtesy that should be offered when taxpayer dollars are at stake, he said.

Harrison, founder of the Tea Party of Hancock County, said while he recognizes the county has outgrown its current fairgrounds, local government should have no involvement in efforts to pay for upgraded facilities.

Asking local taxpayers to foot the bill for the fairgrounds is inappropriate, Harrison said, adding that fundraising should be the responsibility of the 4-H Agricultural Association, which owns and operates the current facilities.

While Jessup and Sorrell — both members of the county council — agree there’s a need for improvements to current fairground facilities, they don’t want to put those needs ahead of other projects.

Jessup points to the increasing population in the county jail, which has seen an influx of inmates because of changes in state law, as a more urgent need for county officials to address.

County officials need to determine what costs will be to add space for more inmates, whether it be at the jail or community corrections, before deciding how to proceed with a less pressing need like the fairgrounds, Jessup said.

Sorrell said he’s keeping an open mind with the fairgrounds development. He agrees with how the commissioners have handled the project to date and plans to adopt a wait-and-see approach before fully supporting the development.

Coming up

The five Republican candidates running for two open county commissioner seats will debate their campaign platforms at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Hancock County Public Library, 900 W. McKenzie Road in Greenfield. The event is open to the public.

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