After 70 years, the grandstand at the Warren County Fairgrounds could come down.
County officials are studying demolition of the grandstand, built in 1943. It’s part of redevelopment eyed since betting on horse racing - conducted for 60 years inside the grandstand just north of downtown Lebanon - was moved to the Miami Valley Gaming racino, south of the city.
Local officials are counting on as much as $6 million to fund improvements at the 97-acre fairgrounds and within one mile of the complex, including $3 million over six years in donations from the racino operators.
Preliminary reviews suggest the needs will exhaust the funding.
“You could spend that $3 million in a heartbeat,” Commissioner Pat South said last week.
Redeveloping former racetracks
Over the next three years, the Ohio Development Services Agency is expected to split almost $12 million among up to four cities left without racetracks through the legalization of racinos in Ohio. Officials in Warren County hope to win close to $3 million in state grants.
A committee this month is expected to recommend to the county commissioners what should be done at the fairgrounds. The committee is expected to recommend repairs, electrical upgrades, landscaping and possibly replacing the grandstand. In addition to continued use for the county fair and 4-H activities, the committee is expected to suggest redeveloping the facility as an equestrian center or exposition and convention center.
Estimates for an exposition/convention center ranged from $2.5 million to $5 million, an indoor riding arena as high as $8 million to $9 million.
Meanwhile, the city of Lebanon is waiting for the state to release forms it can complete to establish itself as fiscal agent for the grants. Regulations released on April 28 by the state designated the city, rather than the county, to head the process.
While the county is concentrating on the fairgrounds complex, Lebanon is expected to focus on redevelopment in the area just beyond its boundaries. A memorandum of understanding will bind their efforts.
“There’s a lot going on here,” Commissioner Dave Young said, expressing concern that several redevelopment ideas were rejected because of conflicts with fair activities during annual fair week.
“How do we get over that?” Young said.
Redevelopment in Lebanon, and in Toledo, Grove City, south of Columbus - and potentially in North Randall, east of Cleveland - hinges on final determinations by the state agency on how the communities are to obtain the funds and the release of the funds, sometime later this year.
Warren County leading way
The ThistleDown racino has not moved from North Randall, and racinos in Dayton (from Toledo) and Austintown (from Grove City) remain under construction.
In Warren County, officials began meeting to plan redevelopment of their fairgrounds, months before the Miami Valley Gaming racino opened in December.
The state regulations say only 50 percent of the state funds can be used in a public facilities like the Warren County Fairgrounds, so county officials have reduced their funding expectations from $6 million to $4.5 million.
“There are still unanswered questions about the rules,” South said last week.
State officials are unable to say when the grant application forms will be completed or provide timetables for release of the funds.
“It’s a new program,” said Stephanie Gostomski, public information officer for the Ohio Development Services Agency, charged with administering the $12 million fund and picking the projects receiving grants.
“They’ll have three years to complete the projects,” she added.
South said $500,000 in stall rental fees have been collected on stables at the fairgrounds, suggesting this part of the complex could sustain itself. However, she also said the grandstand “has outlived its usefulness I do believe.”
The idea of demolishing the grandstand prompted conflicted feelings from Joe Wilson, president of the Warren County Agricultural Society, which manages the fairgrounds, and a member of the redevelopment committee.
“ There’s a lot of history in this building,” Wilson said.
Wilson said other areas of the fairgrounds, a conglomeration of barns, stables and buildings, also needed renovation.
“Maybe it’s time to upgrade the whole grounds,” he said. “Within the next five years, I think everybody will see major improvements.”