HANCOCK COUNTY — Every candidate running for Hancock County Council agrees the county’s 4-H program needs an improved fairgrounds.
But the 11 Republican candidates seeking their party’s nomination on May 3 for three at-large council seats disagree on what the council’s involvement should be.
It’s a hot topic in the race that pits incumbents Debbie Bledsoe and Kent Fisk against challengers Steve Craney, George Langston, Mark Lozier, Bob McDaniel, Ed Moore, John Priore, Dave Roberts, Scott Wooldridge and Martha Vail against one another for three open seats on the seven-member council, which holds the county’s purse strings. The three candidates who win the primary election will be challenged by two Democrats — Rita Johnson and Randy Jones — in November.
The county’s role in the fairgrounds project has been a hotly debated topic in recent months, and the council will need to approve any financial contributions from Hancock County to the project.
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.
Candidates for council agree there’s no question whether improved facilities are needed. Many of the facility’s buildings no longer can accommodate the needs of 4-H programs, but some candidates feel the proposal on the table is too large of a project.
Others feel the nonprofit board overseeing the project shouldn’t be made up of elected officials, including one county commissioner and four county council members.
Craney, Langston, Priore and Vail say those representing the county’s residents shouldn’t also be involved in the board working to make a new fairgrounds a reality.
Langston said while their involvement is legal, it’s unethical.
Other candidates say as the project moves forward, county officials must keep taxpayers in mind, especially when deciding how large the space needs to be.
Wooldridge said the county should consider providing tax incentives to the project, but that’s all.
The project should be built by a nonprofit or for-profit corporation that would not receive taxpayer dollars.
But incumbents Bledsoe and Fisk, who is one of four council members who sit on the nonprofit board overseeing the project, say it’s important the county help move the project along. A new fairgrounds was first proposed more than 10 years ago, but that proposal died when officials weren’t able to decide how to pay for it. Fisk said he doesn’t want the second attempt to build a new fairgrounds to end the same way. He proposes the new fairgrounds be built as money becomes available.
About $70,000 a year will be generated from an increase in the county’s innkeepers tax, and officials are eyeing a 1 percentage point increase in the food and beverage tax to help generate about $900,000 a year. The proposal to increase the food and beverage tax was turned down by state lawmakers this year, but officials expect it to be better received in 2017.
Other candidates say they’re not sure what the county’s involvement should be.
McDaniel said it’s obvious something needs to be done to improve Hancock County’s fairgrounds, but he doesn’t want the burden of funding the project to fall on the taxpayers, though he’s not sure how else it would be paid for.
And Roberts and Moore say more answers are needed before they can take firm stances. Before any taxpayer dollars are spent on the project, county officials need to be sure it’s a good investment and have all the answers about exactly how much the project will cost, what it involves and what officials can expect in terms of profit once the project is built.
Lozier believes the project should be paid for by a bond — which would need to be approved in a referendum by voters. Then, the fairgrounds would be run by a county parks board. And should the county decide to build an exposition complex, it shouldn’t be built on the county-owned farmland, but rather, closer to the interstate and hotels, he said.
Candidates for the Republican nomination for county council will face off in a debate Wednesday.
When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Greenfield-Central High School
Who: 10 candidate for county council