Official asks for another opinion

HANCOCK COUNTY — A local public official is calling for an engineering firm to re-evaluate the county’s need for a new fairgrounds since progress on the project appears to have stalled.

Brad Armstrong, president of the Hancock County Board of Commissioners, voiced frustrations this week over the current proposal, a $30 million to $40 million project that has seen little forward motion since talks began two years ago.

Armstrong announced at Tuesday’s commissioners’ meeting that he plans to make a motion to hire an engineering firm to re-examine the current proposal. He cited poor communication between the nonprofit board overseeing the project and local county officials, as well as a lack of action toward developing a realistic plan to support the project, which to date has contained no detailed funding plans.

The announcement prompted a lengthy conversation between the officials; Commissioner Marc Huber sided with Armstrong, agreeing something needs to be done to spur development on the project, while Commissioner Tom Stevens, who also sits on the nonprofit board, was reluctant to support the idea.

The group needs more time to assess how to fund the project, Stevens said, adding that hiring an engineering firm to come up with another proposal would duplicate what’s already been done.

The problems are familiar to project proponents who have long called for an updated fairgrounds; about 10 years ago, county officials unveiled an $18 million construction plan, but questions about funding and who would control the property shelved the idea.

The current proposal — completed by the group last summer — outlines a plan to build the fairgrounds on 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 a multipurpose exposition center, two arenas and six rental barns. A large outdoor amphitheater, a grand gazebo and sizable retention pond are also planned.

Armstrong suggested such amenities are over the top for the county and said he wants to see an option for a scaled-down proposal with a lower price point.

Armstrong pointed to an estimated $2 million retention pond as one example of something the county might scrap from the plans, especially if required routine maintenance adds to the yearly expense.

Hiring another engineering firm to take a second look at the proposal will likely answer some of those questions, Huber said.

“We’re doing our due diligence,” Huber said. “If they tell us it’ll take $40 million to get what we need, then we’ll know that’s what it takes, and at least we got another opinion.”

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 rejected by state lawmakers this year.

That tax would have raised an estimated $800,000 to $900,000 annually for the project — enough to get the effort off the ground, supporters said.

Weeks after the proposal was turned down by the state legislature, members of the group haven’t pitched an alternative funding plan, and Armstrong said he wants to see action.

“I want to get to the point where we have a project that we know we can accomplish,” Armstrong said. “The way things are right now, I just don’t see a road map that gets us to where we would need to be.”

The commissioners are expected to discuss the issue at the next meeting, 8 a.m. March 29 at the Hancock County Courthouse Annex.

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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.