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Fairgrounds idea edges forward

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GREENFIELD — A dream of building a new county fairgrounds, livestock show arena and conference center on 200 acres of county-owned farmland gained momentum Tuesday with a nod of approval from the county’s executive branch.

The Hancock County Commissioners generally agree that a steering committee should move forward with plans for building a so-called “XPLEX” at property north of U.S. 40 between CRs 400E and 500E. While the commissioners are maintaining final say over how the site will be used, they agree the plan could bring economic development and new quality-of-life features to the community.

For supporters of the project – who came in force to the commissioners Tuesday morning meeting – the step is a significant one.

“It was a good day for the community project; a really good day for it,” said Kent Fisk, a county councilman and advocate for the project.

The idea is an old one that’s being revived. About 10 years have passed since plans were revealed for an $18 million new fairgrounds, but questions over funding and who would be in charge of the property shelved the idea.

Now that talks are advancing about building a $2 million livestock show arena at the current, space-constrained fairgrounds along Apple Street, officials say it’s time to dust off the old plans

and throw in a few new ideas for an exposition center and complex that could draw more shows, meetings and businesses to the area.

A steering committee has been meeting since last fall to discuss ideas, and Tuesday they came before the county commissioners.

The Hancock County Expo Complex, to be called “XPLEX,” would include an enclosed livestock show arena with an attached 150-stall barn; an exposition and conference center with meeting room space; a new fairgrounds with livestock barns, show rings and exhibit halls; a new office building for the Hancock County Purdue University Extension along with incubator space for start-up companies; and shovel-ready property designated for agricultural-related businesses.

Commissioners Tuesday said they agreed with that vision, and they also agreed the steering committee should form a smaller, seven-member advisory committee to return to them with further developments.

Fisk said the commissioners’ agreement Tuesday was vital because it gives advocates the green light to move forward with plans. Next, requests for proposals from engineering or architectural firms will be presented so commissioners can have a better understanding of how much the project could cost and what it will look like.

“At this point, I think it’s too soon to say we’re 100 percent in favor of it, but there are a lot of good aspects we’re willing to explore,” said Derek Towle, president of the commissioners.

Most of the county farm property is currently leased out to local farmers, bringing in around $40,000 annually to the county’s general fund. The sheriff’s department has a shooting range on the southwest corner, and there are two small cemeteries on site. But for the most part, advocates for the XPLEX say there’s a lot of potential for the site.

In the mid-1990s, Ball State University students surveyed fairgoers about a new fairgrounds at the county farm east of Greenfield. A committee formed in 2001, and soon engineering plans were revealed with a livestock show arena to be placed at the site, surrounded on all sides by animal barns a midway, a building for commercial displays and plenty of parking.

Triad Engineering made the original plans and will be invited to make a pitch again to local officials, said Mike Fruth, city utility director who is developing the request for proposals. Fruth said other engineers, architects and land surveyors could also weigh in; he plans to have the request-for-proposal forms ready within the next few weeks.

How much the project will cost and how to pay for it remains to be seen. Possible fundraising efforts could include county and city funding; solicitation of individual and corporate donations; in-kind contributions; and grants.

For Fisk, Tuesday’s commissioner’s meeting represented something the group could not accomplish a decade ago.

“The commissioners still own the property, but I think everyone is in line and everyone is happy that we’re finally moving forward,” Fisk said. “This part of the process 10 years ago never happened. They did all the design and build (work) and everything first, then they went to the government entities. That’s when some of the stumbling blocks fell on who owns what. We’re kind of working the other way this time, getting everyone in line on how it’s going to be operated and who is in charge of what. Then we’ll get to the design and build (phase).”

Commissioner Tom Stevens said this time around there seems to be a tremendous amount of cooperation from city, county and economic development officials alongside the Hancock County Agricultural Association.

Candy Trout, a 4-H leader with the Hancock County Horse & Pony Club, is also looking forward to the future. Trout has been working the last two years on getting a new livestock/equestrian show arena at the current fairgrounds. While it will take longer to build, she said such a building at a new fairgrounds would mean a better overall experience for 4-H’ers and anybody who uses it.

“I think there’s a lot of support from many entities, from the city and the county,” she said. “There’s a lot of momentum building.”

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