Warren County officials are seeking options for financing a project to build an event center at the county fairgrounds, including possibly partnering with the City of Lebanon or turning to the county’s port authority.
Lebanon Mayor Amy Brewer said the city government was ready to consider collaborating with the county on redevelopment of the fairgrounds, located just north of the city’s downtown center.
“That’s something we as a city can take a look at,” Brewer said last week.
Previously, the city and county had disagreed about how to spend $3 million set aside for redevelopment of the fairgrounds and vicinity after the Lebanon Raceway’s operations moved off the fairgrounds to the Miami Valley Gaming racino.
In 2014, the disagreement prompted state officials to mediate an agreement, which said that the city and county would each get half of the money. A committee of members from the two governments, chaired by the city, would review projects submitted to spend those funds.
Last week, Warren County commissioners approved Lebanon to spend the rest of its funds from that agreement on design of a downtown entertainment district.
At the same meeting, commissioners urged staff to encourage the city to help the county make up a deficit on a $3.8 million event center project at the fairgrounds.
“We should be collaborating on the redevelopment of the fairgrounds,” Commissioner Dave Young said at last Tuesday’s commission meeting.
Young pointed out the project should bring earnings taxes, as well as visitors, to Lebanon.
Commissioner Tom Grossmann noted the city used almost $900,000 of its $1.5 million in redevelopment funds on a private project, the $9.3 million LCNB bank building south of the fairgrounds on the edge of downtown Lebanon.
None of the city money went toward projects on the fairgrounds.
“We have a need,” Grossmann said.
Commissioner Shannon Jones was a state senator involved in settling the dispute in 2014. At Tuesday’s meeting, she urged Young not to “re-litigate” the dispute and emphasized that the state left it up to Lebanon how it spent the money, provided it was for something within 1.5 miles of the fairgrounds.
She joined Young and Grossmann in pursuing a partnership with the city.
“I hope Lebanon will come to the table,” she said.
The event center project is over budget in large part because of required improvements to the water system and stormwater management at the fairgrounds.
While not willing to set aside other plans for the redevelopment funds, Deputy Administrator Martin Russell told the commission that Lebanon City Manager Scott Brunka had also indicated willingness to discuss “other opportunities.”
Gene Steiner, president of the Warren County Agricultural Society, said last week that the county and fair board were still considering options such as looking to the city for financial assistance or turning the project over to the port authority.
The agricultural society — known as the fair board — operates the fairgrounds and puts on the annual fair in July.
A port authority intervention could result in the event center being owned by the port authority and leased to the fair board, avoiding sales tax on building materials.
“From what we know, I have no reservations with that whatsoever,” Steiner said. “We’re still investigating the best opportunity for the project.”
Costs in a port authority-run project would also be decreased by avoiding prevailing wage laws required on public projects.
Steiner said a city-county collaboration on the fairgrounds would be “mutually beneficial.” They could cross-promote and share advertising on days both were staging festivities, he said.
“The more there is to do in an area, the more people we can bring in,” Steiner said.
The Lebanon mayor left open the door for discussion, perhaps involving the city providing in-kind services to help cut costs of the fairgrounds makeover.
“There’s always room for discussion,” she said.