Fairgrounds project still stalled

HANCOCK COUNTY — A county commissioner threatened to abandon the effort to build a new fairgrounds — after years of debate over project details and funding — if 4-H leaders don’t agree to share control over the proposal.

Tempers flared this week during a discussion between the county’s board of commissioners and 4-H leaders, with both sides arguing they should have final say over the direction of the estimated $18 million project, a scaled-down version from the original $40 million proposal.

Representatives from the Hancock County 4-H Agricultural Association said they should have control over the project — deciding what gets built and who builds it, among other project decisions — because the organization is responsible for everyday expenses associated with the fairgrounds. But the group is asking for about $12 million of county tax dollars to fund the new facility, so elected officials — who are accountable to taxpayers — should be part of those decisions, Hancock County Commissioners Brad Armstrong and Marc Huber argued.

The boards met this week planning to finalize a resolution that calls for the commissioners to offer a 50-year lease to the agricultural association for county-owned farm land identified as a prime location for a new fairgrounds, provided the association can fundraise the money needed to make the project a reality.

To get the ball rolling, the Hancock County Council will commit funding from a proposed increase to the county’s 1 percent food and beverage tax, paid by diners at Hancock County restaurants — should the increase be approved by the Indiana General Assembly, the resolution states. The tax hike is expected to bring in about $12 million over 20 years.

The agreement gives the association until 2020 to raise the remaining $6 million needed to fund the estimated cost, or the lease will be terminated.

After nearly an hour of discussion with no consensus over which group should control the project, the agricultural association and board of commissioners agreed to take the matter up again in two weeks at the commissioners’ regular Oct. 18 meeting.

Agricultural association board president Barb Pescitelli said 4-H leaders are focused on bringing a quality fairgrounds to the county without burdening taxpayers; the group will be responsible to taxpayers and county officials, she said.

“I didn’t know that there was that much lack of trust in the ag association to build a project,” she said.

Officials can hash out details about who is responsible for the project and who will control what aspects of construction once the funding is raised and a lease is drafted, Pescitelli said.

“This is simply a good-faith agreement,” she said.

But commissioner Marc Huber said everyone needs to be on the same page now to avoid wasting time later.

There are no checks and balances for the agricultural association, Armstrong said, and he’s not willing to hand over taxpayer money with no oversight from officials who represent those taxpayers.

“That’s a non-negotiable point,” Armstrong said. “If that’s not something you can agree to, we can just quit and go home and call this a day.”

Pescitelli is expected to address the commissioners again at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 18.

Coming up

The Hancock County 4-H Agricultural Association will come before the county’s board of commissioners later this month to discuss a resolution for the oversight of the proposed $18 million new fairgrounds project. The meeting, 9:30 a.m. Oct. 18 in the commissioners’ court, 111 American Legion Place, is open to the public.

9:30 a.m. Oct. 18.

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.