Board seeks project control

GREENFIELD — A Hancock County commissioner is pushing for a resolution that would strip the nonprofit overseeing the proposed fairgrounds project from having any further say in the initiative.

Commissioner Brad Armstrong presented the three-member board Tuesday with a resolution stating the future of the project should require an agreement among the board, the county council and representatives of the 4-H program. Including the nonprofit board, which was formed in 2014 to oversee the project but which has clashed with county officials since, “would only complicate the negotiations,” the resolution states.

After hearing from representatives from the 4-H Agriculture Association during Tuesday’s meeting, Armstrong opted to table the resolution until after a meeting with 4-H leaders takes place. That meeting is expected to happen in July. A date has not been set.

It’s the first decisive move to exclude the Hancock County Exposition Complex Corp. from the project, which has been deadlocked for months amid debate over how to raise the $40 million proposed to move the fairgrounds to a new site, double its size and add features like an outdoor amphitheater. A portion of anticipated funding hinged on proposed legislation to raise the county’s food and beverage tax — imposed on diners — by 1 percentage point. The bill, which would have raised about $850,000 annually, died in the General Assembly early this year.

Armstrong said Tuesday the nonprofit organization has failed to communicate its progress to key stakeholders in the project. Commissioner Marc Huber echoed those sentiments and called the plan grandiose. Both have repeatedly asked for a detailed funding plan, while the nonprofit has pressed for more cooperation from county officials.

Armstrong and Huber criticized fellow Commissioner Tom Stevens, who was appointed to the nonprofit as the board’s representative. They accused Stevens of failing to keep them apprised of the nonprofit’s steps to further the project, noting the nonprofit contracted a $30,000 study in February without first notifying them — a contract the board later halted — and also failed to present plans for an alternative $16 million fairgrounds.

Stevens argued the nonprofit has made significant progress and to strip it of its authority would be short-sighted.

“Considering all that’s been invested to date, now is not a time to become impatient and look for a quick fix,” Stevens said.

The nonprofit board overseeing the project comprises seven members: Stevens and County Councilman Kent Fisk, who represent the county; utilities director Mike Fruth, who represents the city of Greenfield; Skip Kuker, who represents the Hancock Economic Development Council; Tom White and Darrin Couch, who represent the Hancock County 4-H Agricultural Association; and Dave Scott, who represents the visitor’s bureau.

Armstrong and Huber appeared determined to pass the resolution Tuesday until Barb Pescitelli, president of the 4-H Agriculture Association, asked the board to delay a decision until after 4-H leaders have a chance to meet with the commissioners and the county council.

Huber and Armstrong agreed to meet but voiced the need for another study to develop plans for more realistic alternative locations and funding.

The nonprofit’s proposal for a $30 million to $40 million fairgrounds 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 help transition the fairgrounds to more of a year-round facility, adding a multipurpose exposition center, two arenas and six rental barns. A large outdoor amphitheater, a grand gazebo and several retention ponds are also planned.

The plan is overly ambitious and unrealistic for the county’s needs, Huber said.

Armstrong defended his stance on the project, saying he’s looking out for the best interests of his constituents.

“I’ve taken a lot of heat for this,” he said. “(Huber and I) were cut out of this project … and we’re the only two trying to prevent a runaway train of spending.”

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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.