Warren County leaders debate fairgrounds future

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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Drivers circle the practice track at the Warren County Fairgrounds

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Parties haven’t reached lease deal or agreement on use of $1. 5 milion from state.

Warren County officials continue to debate redevelopment of the fairgrounds even as the clock runs on access to $1.5 million in state funds for the work.

This month, the Warren County Agricultural Society, the non-profit responsible for operating the fairgrounds, presented a plan for more than $5 million in demolition, construction and improvements to the 97-acre complex. That included a 65,000-square-foot grandstand and track plus five other buildings or barns on the grounds, just north of downtown Lebanon.

And last Tuesday, the board reviewed the latest version of a lease required by Commissioner Dave Young before he will approve any spending or application for state funding.

During earlier discussion, new Commissioner Tom Grossmann directed the society, better known as the fair board, to justify the need for $3 million to $4 million to demolish and replace the grandstands. He sought an economic impact study justifying the investment.

Grossmann also questioned if the land, near the center of Lebanon, should be sold and the fairgrounds moved to a less urban setting.

“This isn’t the place I would put the fairgrounds,” Grossmann said.

Three-year debate

Grossmann is new to the debate, but the county has discussed redevelopment of the fairgrounds for three years when it became clear the racetrack would leave town following the legalization of racinos in Ohio.

The operators of the Miami Valley Gaming racino, where the former Lebanon Raceway was moved in December 2013, have pledged $3 million to redevelop the fairgrounds.

Lebanon has already committed $1 million of its $1.5 million share of the funds, including more than $900,000 going to a new administrative center for the local bank.

The city took control of the racetrack redevelopment process, operated through the Ohio Development Services, after a debate over control with the county.

The county also plans to use more than $400,000 left from an insurance claim after a fire at the fairgrounds plus fair board revenues to pay for the redevelopment.

Negotiations continue

Despite continued negotiations with the county fair board, which has the authority to run the 97-acre fairgrounds, no new lease has been reached clearing the way for its redevelopment. The existing 50-year agreement has 37 years to go.

Young continues to balk at spending any money on the fairgrounds until a new lease has been signed.

The fair board has identified more than $5 million in projects, including demolition of the 65,000-square-foot grandstands, the center of the racetrack operations before the move.

Commissioner Pat South is expressing concern the county could lose the racetrack redevelopment money unless it moves ahead with seeking the state funds for the fairgrounds projects.

South, who is part of the board submitting projects for the state funding, said the money has to be spent by the end of 2017.

“Timing is everything,” South said on March 10. “The sooner we get our foot in the door…”

South also said the Carlo family, owners of seven acres near the entrance, wanted to renew negotiations. Since the county rejected the price sought by the Carloses, they have recently indicated they would agree to a land trade, possibly for a corner on Markey Road.

Grossmann quizzed fair board and county officials about other potential uses of the land, anticipated economic impact and how to improve the entrance along Broadway.

Representatives from the fair board said the site was rented out 37 weekends last year.

In addition, the fair board collects rent on 700 horse stalls and supports a variety of agricultural activities.

“We’ve come to find this is the best use of this facility,” said Gene Steiner of the fair board. “We are a viable, growing part of what is happening in this county.”

County officials urged Grossmann to join them in moving forward on spending $135,000 on wrought-iron fencing at the entrance along Broadway and $185,000 in improvements to Building A, the first one encountered pulling off Broadway into the complex, and demolition of the grandstands, estimated to cost $300,000.

Grossmann remained skeptical about spending $3 million for a new central building for the fair, but expressed confidence the commissioners would come up with a solution.

However, he joined Young in requiring completion of the lease and called for a plan, including flowers and landscaping, along Broadway and near the entrance, to improve its appearance from the road.

“This is one ugly piece of property,” Grossmann said.

Last Tuesday, the board reviewed the latest version of the new lease but delayed approval.

On Thursday, Administrator Dave Gully said the two sides were still several weeks from reaching final terms. Plans for a company or microbrewery at the fairgrounds were on the shelf, he said.

South’s retirement at the end of the year is also a factor.

“This is one of the things Pat wants to see done before she leaves,” Gully said.

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