The lack of control that Warren County has over the county fairgrounds is viewed by some as an obstacle to redevelopment plans that could include a new corporate headquarters, microbrewery and exposition center on the grounds, just north of downtown Lebanon.
County officials are negotiating with the non-profit board that manages the 97-acre fairgrounds and private owners who own seven acres within the fairgrounds to gain full control of all 104 acres.
Commissioner Dave Young said last week he wants the county agricultural society, which controls the fairgrounds, to turn over control of land not involved in fair and other agricultural activities.
Young said he was not ready to devote state and county funds set aside for redevelopment of the fairgrounds until the county also controlled the seven-acre site owned by the Lebanon Trotting Club.
“Otherwise we’re going to have a parking lot in the middle of this multi-million dollar development,” Young said during a meeting Tuesday with members of the agricultural society, also known as the fair board.
During the meeting, consultants working on redevelopment plans said they were moving forward with two potential scenarios.
In one scenario, the county commissioners have control of the seven acres - currently used for parking by a nearby landscaping company - as well as the fairgrounds lots devoted to the redevelopment.
In the second scenario, the the trotting club ownership keeps its land.
Buying seven-acre island
The county has been negotiating with the owners of the seven acres for about three years, since the state law cleared the way for betting on harness racing to be moved to the Miami Valley Gaming racino outside town in Turtlecreek Twp.
The ownership of the Lebanon Trotting Club and the Miami Valley Trotting Club are to split $60 million from the sale of the licenses enabling Miami Valley Gaming to offer gambling on live and simulcast horse races, as well as electronic slot machines, also known as video lottery terminals, at the racino.
John Carlo of the Lebanon Trotting Club and an owner of the seven-acre island said last week they were working with the county, while awaiting the final plan for the fairgrounds.
“All the options are on the table,” said John Carlo. “We want to look at what the plans are going to be and decide what is best for everybody.”
Carlo said the seven acres comprised the final piece of land, acquired decades ago when the club, headed by his father, bought what was then the Hufford Farm.
In 1996, the Carlos sold the county about 35 acres of the former farm on the south side of the current fairgrounds, where a barn now stands and, under one plan, the corporate headquarters would be located.
“This is just the rest of what’s left,” Carlo said. “It’s not going to be a hindrance to the development of the property.”
Commissioner Pat South said the county has presented the Carlos with options including purchase or a land trade.
New lease on fairgrounds
The county is also renegotiating a 40-year lease with the fair board to gain control of tracts that will be designed for economic development, while leaving those used for the fair and agricultural activities for the society. The commissioners own the land, but state law gives control to the fair board.
Gene Steiner, president of the fair board, said the board and the county were working on a “somewhat argumentative” relationship, as well as a new lease satisfying both parties.
“The concerns lie in what is best for the people of Warren County,” Steiner said.
The fair board redevelopment plan includes demolition of the grandstands and construction of an equestrian center augmenting facilities already used for five events a year.
The fair board is unconcerned about the seven acres, since the Carlos allow the land to be used during the annual fair, he said.
“How the county works out the relationship with them is going to be between those two. I think they are closer than they were three years ago,” Steiner said.
The county and city of Lebanon are expected to split up to $3 million in state funds set aside for the redevelopment. The county has another $3 million pledged from the racino - $1 million already in the bank - to be used in the redevelopment.
City officials have expressed concerns about the county successfully redeveloping the fairgrounds.
State law designates the city as the agent involved in pursuing the state funds, and the city has focused on about six acres just south of the fairgrounds for use of its redevelopment funding.
Last week, Mayor Amy Brewer said her concerns were in part related to the long lease the fair board had, but not with the status of the Carlo parcel.
At the meeting last Tuesday, county officials said they planned to work with the city on the final plans for fairgrounds redevelopment.
They indicated the redevelopment could move forward, regardless of the status of the Carlo tract.
“Mr. Carlo could decide he doesn’t want to sell it,” South said. “It could become a hurdle. It’s one we could work around.”
South predicted a resolution of the land control issues within a month.
“All of those things are going to be coming together, all at the same time,” she said.
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