Roundtable discussion centers fairground’s future

HANCOCK COUNTY — County officials will conduct a roundtable discussion to determine what steps need to be taken to proceed with plans for a new fairgrounds — a widely-anticipated project on which progress has stalled.

Local officials have discussed the project at length during public meetings, with both spectators and members of the Hancock County Board of Commissioners voicing frustrations over a lack of progress on the proposal that was first introduced two years ago.

At the end of a nearly two-hour long discussion at this week’s commissioners’ meeting, members of the board agreed to organize a meeting with the 4-H Agriculture Association, which oversees the current fairgrounds.

The meeting will be open to the public.

Commissioner Brad Armstrong, president of the board, said he wants to see a realistic proposal for how to pay for the project.

The Hancock County Exposition Complex Corp., a nonprofit assembled to oversee the project and gain support from private companies, introduced plans for a $30 to $40 million project last summer but has not yet laid out a detailed funding plan.

Other possibilities include investing in the current fairgrounds, 620 N. Apple St., or moving to a new site and building new facilities in $2 million to $3 million segments, which could be budgeted into county finances, Armstrong said.

The current proposal 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 approximately double the size of the current fairgrounds, adding a multipurpose exposition center, two arenas and six rental barns. A large outdoor amphitheater, a grand gazebo and a sizeable retention pond are also planned.

While all those amenities — many of which aren’t offered at the current fairgrounds — would be beneficial to residents, the plan is over the top for the area, Armstrong said.

“It’s a plan built upon a wish list — wants rather than needs,” he said.

At the upcoming meeting with members of the agriculture association, Armstrong said he hopes to better determine the organization’s needs.

From there, the commissioners will work with members to come up with several possible plans, Armstrong said.

The nonprofit’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 this year by state lawmakers.

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

But when the tax hike was turned down by lawmakers, members of the nonprofit had no contingency plan for how to move forward with the project.

Though local lawmakers have said they intend to bring the bill back next year, Armstrong said he wants to have a contingency plan, so progress doesn’t continue to be delayed.

Commissioner Marc Huber also expressed frustration over the stalled progress, saying it’s time to re-examine how the project will be handled moving forward.

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 ultimately led organizers to shelve the idea.

Commissioner Tom Stevens said the board needs to be careful not to reignite that dispute. He agreed a meeting between the board of commissioners and agriculture association is a wise move.

The date of the meeting has not been set.

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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.