GREENFIELD — After months of back-and-forth negotiations between elected officeholders and officials who have mounted an effort to build a new county fairgrounds, both parties reached a compromise of sorts this week.
The 4-H Agricultural Association has roughly three years to raise $18 million to fund a project to move the county fairgrounds to a new site with upgraded indoor facilities and other improvements, or it’s back to square one.
Officials from the Hancock County Board of Commissioners, the county council and the agricultural association convened for a meeting Tuesday night at the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts that drew a crowd of several hundred residents.
During the meeting, which grew contentious at times, Lou Savka, the owner of Triad Engineering, a firm hired to draw up a proposal for a new county fairgrounds, presented a new plan for the project. The new proposal, estimated to cost roughly $18 million, includes a large livestock show arena with three barns attached, a multi-purpose building and a storage facility for fair equipment.
The plan is significantly scaled back from the estimated $30 million to $40 million proposal fairgrounds officials presented to the commissioners last year that called for a exposition complex and barns for weddings or other events.
Like the old plan, the new proposal is designed to be built on about 200 acres of county-owned farmland along U.S. 40 between county roads 400E and 500E. The plan includes room for additional amenities that could be added later, including a dirt racing track, several barns and an additional show arena for small animals, Savka said.
After hearing the updated proposal, commissioner Brad Armstrong, who in the past has voiced concerns about the cost of the original fairgrounds proposal, which he fears could become a burden for taxpayers, appeared resistant to the new pitch.
“If you don’t have a finite plan, costs can run away,” Armstrong said. “We can’t build something we don’t have the funds to finish.”
But Barb Pescitelli, president of the agricultural association, insisted the group needs a commitment from the commissioners to solicit loans and donations to fund the proposal.
Progress on the previous fairgrounds proposal was stymied early this year when state lawmakers wouldn’t allow the county to raise the local food and beverage tax, which is collected from diners at local restaurants, by 1 percentage point.
Proponents estimated that plan could have raised as much as $12 million for the project.
But Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, who penned the bill that died at the Statehouse, has said he intends to bring a revised version of the bill back next year.
Should the effort to raise the food and beverage tax be successful, fairgrounds supporters would need to raise only $6 million, as the increased food and beverage tax is expected to generate about $12 million. Much of the $6 million needed could be raised through in-kind donations from individuals and organizations as well as contributions made for naming rights on facilities, Pescitelli said.
But commissioner Tom Stevens, who has stood in support of the previous fairgrounds proposal, warned the group that construction costs are constantly in flux. What costs $18 million to build today could swell by several million in just a few years, he said.
Despite doubts from Armstrong and Huber that the group can raise the needed funds without proposing an increase to residents’ property taxes — which both officials oppose — Pescitelli and other members of the agricultural association’s board remain confident.
“If we don’t raise $18 million to start the project, no dirt will be turned,” Pescitelli said.
Throughout Tuesday night’s meeting, which grew theatrical at times, with elected officials and members of the agricultural association seated onstage and facing the crowd, spectators clapped in support of statements from both sides.
At the meeting’s conclusion, county attorney Ray Richardson said he would draft a resolution between the agriculture association and the commissioners, which would be subject to approval from both groups, in addition to the county council. The resolution, which gives the 4-H Agricultural Association three years to raise funds for the project, will likely be presented to the commissioners in August, with approval coming sometime later in the month or in early September, Huber said.
Residents who attended the meeting but weren’t allowed to address the boards left the theater with mixed reactions.
“I’m quite pleased to see some actual progress on this whole thing,” said Jason McDaniels, a county resident whose four grandchildren participate in the 4-H program.
But others raised doubts about the group’s ability to garner the funds needed to move the project forward and feared it will languish.
The need for more parking and upgraded facilities was obvious during this year’s fair, which wrapped up weeks ago, said Amy Buchanan of Greenfield. She worries those issues will only grow worse in the interim.
“I just worry we’ll find ourselves in this whole mess again in a few years, and by then this will all be much more dire,” said Amy Buchanan of Greenfield. “Six million dollars is a lot of money, even for a group with so much support.”